A raft of new restrictions on how gambling brands advertise will come into effect on April 2 - despite evidence suggesting that advertising plays neither a significant or even a casual role in problem gambling or harm in general, and Advertising Association insistence that existing ad rules are enough.
Whatever brand owners’ private feelings, however, all must now respond. And their priority should be to work harder to build emotional connections rather than to simply shout loudly and often.
Gambling is an ad category characterised by hard man tactics and a product sector crammed with same-same and me-too propositions.
Gambling ads appear in 95% of TV ad breaks during live UK football matches
Yes, it is highly lucrative. With gambling on football alone worth a record £1.4bn to bookmakers in the 12 months from October 2015 to September 2016, according to Gambling Commission data, gambling is a massive business.
And TV exposure plays a critical role. Gambling ads appear in 95% of TV ad breaks during live UK football matches, according to a BBC survey. Researchers at Goldsmiths University, meanwhile, have found more than 250 separate gaming adverts seen on screen – mostly on shirts, hoardings and post-match interviews – during the BBC's Match of the Day.
But when it comes to creative communications and effective engagement and meaningful relationships, when you compare it with other high regulated categories – like alcohol, where brand is king and often drives consumer choice – gambling lags sorely behind.
Paddy Power, Kwiff.com and Betway – with whom we have worked for the past six years – have developed differentiated entertaining brands, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
Change is long overdue, then. And now it is being forced upon an industry that for too long has relied on rational "sells" like free bets and bonuses, both of which under the Committee of Advertising Practice’s new rules and other further restrictions are likely to be curtailed. And it comes at a time of heightened concern about gambling.
In January, the Church of England raised its concern that pre-9pm watershed gambling ads were stoking a moral crisis among the young. Earlier this month, betting firms Ladbrokes, William Hill and PT Entertainment agreed to change their online games promotions following criticism from the Competition and Markets Authority that "unfair online promotions" trapped players’ money by forcing them to play more to release winnings.
Now, CAP’s new standards include restrictions on ads that create "an inappropriate sense of urgency" – such as those which call on players to place immediate bets during live events. They will also restrict ads that encourage repetitive play. And they will prevent eye-catching claims that convey an irresponsible perception of risk or control, such as describing bonuses as "risk-free".
This will be bad news for those who have staked their future on more immediately profitable betting behaviours and formats – such as live in-game and also fixed odds betting – and will probably signal the end for hard-hitting campaigns like Bet365’s, fronted by Ray Winstone.
However it will be good news for those already using subtler and more sophisticated tactics, and others now prepared to start doing so. Betway’s "For the love of the game" campaign, for example, has consistently mined the emotional connection between fans and the sports they love over a number of years.
The good news for those concerned about too much gambling advertising on TV is that one-size-fits-all, TV-heavy ad campaigns may now decrease.
And this will happen naturally, as those players yet to do so start thinking more progressively about how best to communicate with their audiences where they actually are – on social channels and in the physical world – and start playing a longer game by investing in new product development, favouring multichannel strategies, and prioritising customer retention.
Moving ahead, building deeper and more meaningful relationships with their audiences will be not just a must-do for every gambling business but also a major opportunity.
Those driven by the pursuit of a quick profit will find this a significant challenge. But as those best-focused on emotion-led stories and social or experiential incentives prosper, they will surely see the time has come for the UK’s gambling businesses to grow up.
David Billing is executive creative director at Above & Beyond