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16 April 2019

The decision made by Svenska Spel to halt its online TV advertising for the rest of this year has ramifications way beyond the borders of the former monopoly’s home country, says Scott Longley.

As has been found previously in other newly regulated markets across Europe, the most obvious route for operators to announce their presence has been via the medium of TV ads.

Yet this rush to establish a brand presence has a side effect. The ad breaks get swamped with gambling promotions and sections of the viewing public, with or without the help of lobby groups and politicians, kick up a fuss.

The only surprise, perhaps, is that this cycle of events appears to be occurring very early in the short life of the regulated Swedish market.

It is less than four months since the market opened up and already we have seen a survey suggesting nearly 90% of Swedes believe there is too much gambling advertising.

Two Swedish trade bodies have also waded into the debate, with recommendations for new self-imposed guidelines. These consisted of a nine-point plan for how operators can advertise responsibly but didn’t include any limits on either how many ads a firm might place or when. 

The public statement issued by Svenska Spel chief executive Patrik Hofbauer said the company was “taking the plunge” to end its campaign on TV, citing evidence from Sweden’s Public Health Agency report, which suggested those who have problem gambling issues are “triggered” by TV advertising.

This isn’t really surprising. Hofbauer suggested that the company had had “intense internal discussions”, but the evidence that gambling advertising can act as a trigger has been around for some time.

Much as with the decision to advertise in the first place, it might be said the move to call a halt for this year is likely a commercial decision as much as anything. Arguably, by going public on the issue it draws attention to its stance and looks like an attempt to gain the higher ground.

If it looks like a business tactic, that’s likely because it is. Should even more opprobrium be heaped on the gambling sector in Sweden due to its overexposure on TV, then Svenska Spel will be able to dodge the brickbats having already established a substantial market share.

But what of the rest of the industry? Hofbauer will have raised hackles in calling for other operators to join its self-imposed ban and by suggesting that only then will the gaming industry show that it “takes consumer protection seriously”.

As Svenska Spel itself admitted in its press release, “there seems to be no general link between gambling advertising and a gambling problem”, and to suggest somehow that the ending of all online casino advertising is some kind of proof of corporate responsibility is, arguably, in itself irresponsible.

Without proof, such a move becomes merely a gimmick and arguably does nothing to resolve actual problem gambling issues.

Quality control
Similar arguments about volumes of gambling advertising are being played out in the UK, where the added complaint about advertising being seen by children is being thrown in for good measure.

As it stands, the evidence that gambling advertising has an affect on children simply isn’t there. More pointedly, data from the ASA for 2017 showed that children saw 40% fewer gambling ads in 2017 than they did four years previously.

With operators in the UK having agreed a whistle-to-whistle ban that begins later this year, the focus should move on from issues of quantity to one of quality. This is broadly where the ASA is at in the UK, attempting to discriminate around the how of advertising rather than the why.

It is a hard area to assess. As the recent debate around a decision against Sky Bet demonstrated, defining how an ad has breached the code can be contentious.

But the industry should certainly have the wherewithal to weed out simply bad advertising. As one source put it, while it might be said that Paddy Power sometimes aims low with a sub-Loaded strain of humour, others appear to take that as the cue to aim lower.

If the advertising was less painful to watch, perhaps, then the complaints might be less forthcoming and the pressure would ease off. And at least we might be saved the sight of Kris Akabusi on our TV screens. Sometimes it’s all about small mercies.