April 10, 2023
- Alfredo Lazcano, Chair, Lazcano Samano
- Andrea Avedillo, Head of Legal, Lazcano Samano
Do advertising bans contribute to responsible gaming?
Alfredo Lazcano and Andrea Avedillo argue that advertising bans have at best no impact on problem gambling and at worst drive the very behavior they are trying to reduce
After a period of liberalization, several countries around the world – mainly in Europe – have started to restrict or completely forbid gambling advertising. The logic seems to be that if betting games are not advertised, then they are not consumed, especially by problem gamblers. Thus restrictions on advertising are justified as a part of the respective responsible gaming policies. However, problem gambling as a condition is a lot more complex and cannot be reduced through the blunt instrument of an advertising ban. On the contrary: restrictive measures tend to incentivize the behavior they are intended to prevent.
On December 19, 2022, the Ministry of the Interior (Spanish acronym “SEGOB”), which is in charge of the regulation, control and oversight of betting games in Mexico, submitted for the approval of the National Commission for Regulatory Improvement (Spanish acronym “CONAMER”), a project to amend the current Regulations to the Federal Law on Games and Drawings (“Gaming Regulations”).
Through this amendment project SEGOB is proposing, among other things, to ‘establish time restrictions in terms of advertising, propaganda and promotions of betting games and drawings’.
The aforementioned case is just one of many examples of regulatory restrictions that the gaming industry is experiencing across the globe, since apparently ‘there are reasons to believe that at least some gambling advertising has a negative influence, because it contributes to the prevalence of problem gambling’. Even though this statement may not be false, as other studies have suggested, the issue with gambling advertising and the impact it has on problem gambling seems to be much more complex.
On one hand, as explained further in this article, there is a difference between heavy gambling and problem gambling, although not everybody is aware of the distinction. On the other hand, not every piece of advertising has the same influence on gamblers. Furthermore, not all advertising is aimed at increasing gambling.
Despite these nuances, the Mexican intention to restrict gambling advertising brings it into line with many regulatory bodies in other jurisdictions around the globe who have issued, or are considering issuing, general bans and restrictions on gambling advertising. These are being imposed regardless of the means used, the impact, the benefits, and the gambling companies’ rights. More importantly, they are being introduced regardless of the nature of responsible gaming as a whole.
The problem with problem gambling
Since the premise of gambling advertising restriction is its contribution to problem gambling, we believe it is essential to know what problem gambling is.
The definition of problem gambling appears to be logical: implicit in the name it that it concerns problems with gambling. However, if we take a closer look, problem gambling it is not as simple as it sounds.
Per Binde, Associate Professor of Social Anthropology of the University of Gothenburg, uses a definition of problem gambling which states that ‘two criteria need to be fulfilled (cf. Williams & Volberg, 2013): a) The individual has impaired control over time or money spent on gambling; b) Gambling has negative consequences for the individual or someone close to him or her’.
Indeed, there are ‘heavy’ gamblers – also known as high rollers – who can frequently gamble considerable sums of money and may be seen as ‘problematic’ gamblers by others; yet as long as they do not gamble compulsively or their gambling conduct does not harm themselves or others, they do not meet this criteria.
The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health provides a distinction between serious social gambling and pathological gambling. The first defined as ‘people [that] play regularly’ and the later as people ‘unable to control the urge to gamble´. Not every gambler has a problem, and not every gambler has the same propensity to develop a problem with gambling and therefore, it does not follow that the elimination of advertising would decrease the occurrence of problem gambling.
Furthermore, a ‘cursory comparison of countries around the world now and in the past […] does not suggest that extensive advertising is related to high prevalence [of problem gambling] rates. There are countries with high prevalence and little gambling advertising, and on the contrary there are countries with average or low presence and relatively heavy advertising’.
The complex nature of advertising
Advertising is the most visible part of the gambling ecosystem so we should not be surprised that it is the object of scrutiny. Advertising can be perceived as a way to persuade people to buy or use something they do not need, but a cursory glance shows that this is not universally the case. Advertising is a useful tool not only to sell goods but also to spread messages on a large scale; ‘similar methods are used to encourage people to drive safely, to support various charities, or to vote for political candidates’. Moreover, advertising is a strong contributor to the economy and a free press as in many countries advertising is the most important source of income for the media.
As with other controversial activities, advertising cannot be defined as inherently good or bad per se, since whether it results on something beneficial or harmful will depend on the use to which it is put. For instance, in gambling advertising ‘impact is defined as perceived changes in gambling involvement, awareness towards gambling, or knowledge about gambling forms and operators because of gambling advertisement’. Gambling advertising does not necessarily aim to increase sales: it can also be designed to raise awareness of the risks in gambling or to present a regulated gaming company in a way that players feel safe when using its products.
With general restrictions or complete bans, regulatory bodies seem oblivious to the fact that gambling advertising may also be used to advertise the risks in gambling and to inform players about the alternatives to gamble responsibly. Gambling advertising, in almost every country where gambling is regulated, needs to include information about the operator and the license granted to carry out betting games, which creates a culture of transparency, liability and good regulatory practice. Not to mention that these bans are contrary to the right of gambling companies to promote activities which they are legally authorized to perform.
Impact of gambling advertising
As we said before, restrictions on gambling advertising seem to be based on the notion that it significantly contributes to problem gambling. However, it is important to bear in mind that people with gambling risks / problem gambling may be more exposed to gambling advertising because they ‘may be more attentive towards gambling advertising […] due to the places they frequent (e.g., gambling sites) and gambling companies targeting advertisement directly towards them’ .
Problem gamblers may be more receptive to gambling advertisements because they do, in fact, have a risk or problem associated with gambling. Yet despite this, banning advertisement does not eliminate problem gambling. As Binde clarifies:
‘Advertising is one of many environmental factors that contribute to the prevalence of problem gambling. The total environmental impact may be substantial. Only in particular conditions, such as extensive advertising for especially risky forms of gambling that are offered on an immature market with few if any player protection features (such as stake limits and possibilities for self-exclusion), may one assume that advertising in itself substantially contributes to problem gambling’ .
We are not proposing that gambling advertising should be completely unregulated, but that it is essential to understand how it should be restricted in order to prevent harmful outcomes. Most gambling operators would agree with the implementation of any measure that efficiently reduces the prevalence of gambling problem. After all ‘Casinos need to have customers in order to sustain themselves’ and ‘the only way to have customers is to have customers who themselves are healthy and thriving and able to pay their bills and come back the next time’.
There is a worldwide trend to ban gambling advertising supposedly with the intention of reducing consumption and, therefore, reducing cases of problem gambling. However, studies on the matter show that a simple ban or misguided restriction does not generate the desired results yet has a disproportionate impact on the industry and the media.
Robust responsible gaming policies should be composed of advertising campaigns for gambling activities that publicize the actions that both governments and gambling operators carry out to reduce the risks of problem gambling. Terminating the advertising of legal gambling completely can also give a boost to illegal gambling since it will only be unlicensed operators who promote their products.
There needs to be a reasonable balance between excessive and oppressive restrictions and no regulation at all of gambling advertising. From a legal perspective, regulatory bodies and lawmakers should learn how to regulate in an efficient manner instead of promoting prohibiting dispositions that in the short term cause more harm than they are trying to prevent.
In the words of André Syvertsen, Eilin K. Erevik, Daniel Hanss, Rune A, Mentzoni and Ståle Pallesen, in their Journal of Gambling Studies article Relationships Between Exposure to Different Gambling Advertising Types, Advertising Impact and Problem Gambling: ‘the fact that advertising types have different and unique characteristics makes it difficult to apply successful universal regulations’8; thus, a blanket ban on gambling advertising would have a little chance of success.