UK: Gambling ads – a closer look at the recent news coverage

The number of complaints made about gambling adverts increased almost sixfold in the past year, prompting calls for all betting adverts to display helplines for problem gamblers” writes The Times this week (February 25 2013). Whilst it is true that the number of complaints has indeed increased from 154 complaints about 141 gambling ads in 2011 to 873 complaints about 372 gambling ads in 2012, this does not necessarily mean that the ads themselves are socially irresponsible or contribute to gambling addiction. In fact, as Matthew Wilson of the Advertising Standards Authority (the “ASA” – the advertising regulator in the UK) comments, “Many of the complaints that we received about gambling ads are made on the grounds that they are misleading (exaggerate the chance of winning or promotions are administered unfairly) or that a creative treatment is offensive”. Matthew also adds that complaints on the grounds an ad is “offensive” can also skew the stats.

For example, over one third of the 873 complaints lodged in 2012, related to just one advert by bookmaker Paddy Power and whether Paddy Power’s ad was offensive to the transgender community. The 311 complaints lodged were not in fact investigated by the ASA as the ad complained of appeared on Paddy Power’s YouTube channel which was hosted from Ireland so the ASA decided that, in the circumstances, it was best to refer the complaints to their Irish counterparts. However the UK version of the same ad, which attracted 92 complaints, was investigated and the complaints upheld which highlights the importance of looking at the circumstances surrounding the stats and not just the numbers themselves.

It might be helpful to consider the actual number of complaints that were formally investigated and, of these, how many were upheld. These figures are perhaps (arguably) better indicators of how well (or poorly) the industry is performing. In 2011, 15 ads (which prompted 78 of the 154 complaints) were formally investigated and upheld. In 2012, 20 cases (which prompted 114 of the 873 complaints) were formally investigated and upheld. The stats for 2013 so far show that the ASA has received 141 complaints in relation to 85 gambling ads. Of these, 2 ads have been formally investigated and upheld.

All in all, the take home message conveyed by the stats is not necessarily that there needs to be further controls and regulation with respect to the industry’s advertising practices as some commentators in the press have called for. What the stats perhaps tell industry is to be mindful of consumer tastes and sensitivities, particularly at present where the industry is under scrutiny, and to be cautious when launching ad campaigns because the ASA will and do take action against those advertisers who get it wrong. A reminder of the ASA’s requirements can be found here.

The statistics at a glance:

Year No. complaints No. ads No. ads investigated and upheld
2011 154 141 15
2012 873 372 20
2013 (so far) 141 85 2