In an effort to stave off the kind of gambling ad restrictions introduced in Italy this month, industry leaders have gone against best evidence to adopt a voluntary ban on TV commercials during matches.
Industry bosses in Britain have opted to sooth rising public tensions by voluntarily adopting a whistle-to-whistle embargo on televised gambling ads from next summer.
The short term effects may prove financially positive for many operators, whose spend on TV advertising has skyrocketed in recent years (see chart). The move has been lamented by analysts however, as yet another example of firms having to relinquish their predilection for evidence-based policy in deference to public whim. The benefits to consumers, they say, may be harder to find than the negatives.
The ban, which was ratified by the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling mid-December, will prohibit ads running from five minutes before a match starts, until five minutes after the final whistle.
In contrast to the government’s own opinion earlier this year that ad bans were neither necessary nor effective, culture minister Jeremy Wright applauded the move saying it showed operators were “stepping up and responding to public concerns”.
Yet many were aggrieved for precisely this reason.
“Learning how and when to bend with the wind is an important attribute for this industry,” wrote Dan Waugh, partner at consultancy firm Regulus. “Yet there is something unsettling about the suggestion that it is somehow a response to the will of the people.”
In line with the government’s previous findings, Waugh notes that the research on the effects of gambling adverts is “reasonably extensive if not all that robust”, and has in various cases proven either negligible or inconclusive. Moreover the Gambling Commission’s consumer survey “does not indicate that the population is losing much sleep over the matter.”
“Operators are getting used to taking the blame and being told what to do,” he adds. But in acceding to further unevidenced pressure, shirt sponsorship, which attracts perhaps greater public outcry, along with the murky world of online ads, could yet be the next target for campaigners.
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has already vowed to take the fight to the former. While Stephen van Rooyen, chief executive of Sky UK, another critic of the ban, argued that in cutting TV ads, firms will “simply spend more online, bombarding people’s smartphones, tablets and social media feeds with even more gam- bling ads.”
While the connection between reducing harm via reducing ads is tenu- ous, the negative effects for consumers are well documented.
Warwick Bartlett of Isle- of-Man consultancy firm GBGC, referred to an example from the 1970s when bookmakers last agreed to “self-regulation” of advertising. With commercials controlled by the incumbent market leaders, it naturally impeded competition, leading the then Minister for Consumer Affairs to brand it as “the worst restriction of trade that she had ever seen.”
“It is fully understand- able why a voluntary ban might be suggested,” Bartlett considers. “The sector wishes to head-off an outright ban on all gambling advertising, similar to that introduced in Italy.”
“The question remains as to whether the ban is legal and whether such a ban will solidify the position of those that already have substantial market share, preventing newcomers from getting a foot on the ladder.”
Waugh concludes that at a minimum the effects of this ban must be properly evaluated “using robust ante-post analysis of attitudes and behaviours.”
Failure to do so “may lead to the conclusion that public health posturing has been driven more by questions of taste, perception and a fear of the anti-gambling lobby than by scientific appraisal and genuine concern for practical harm minimisation.”