ASA calls for public help in flagging rogue gambling ads

9 April 2020

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has called on the British public to report gambling ads that refer to the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, pledging swift action against those that breach advertising rules.

The watchdog said that the conduct of the online gambling industry, including the nature and frequency of its advertising, was under particular scrutiny during the pandemic.

“‘Lockdown’ has created a ‘captive audience’,” the ASA explained. “Many people are anxious and uncertain about the future and a significant number face financial hardship.

"To some, gambling may even be seen as an escape from the situation they now find themselves in. Such vulnerabilities heighten risks associated with gambling.”

The UK’s national lockdown had already prompted the ASA to launch a reporting process to notify the regulator of Covid-19 related claims in ads, often for healthcare products, and warned that gambling was “no different”.

The ASA is therefore encouraging members of the public to report gambling ads that refer to the pandemic or related matters, such as the government’s lockdown policy. Ads that feature claims or themes of particular concern during the current situation - such as those referring to relieving boredom, repeated play or personal problems - should also be reported, it said.

“In ordinary times, ads following this kind of approach are likely to raise compliance concerns,” the ASA explained. “The present circumstances exacerbate this, so the ASA will not hesitate to take firm action against irresponsible messaging in gambling ads.

"To this end, we will continue our close working relationship with the [British] licensing authority, the Gambling Commission, to identify issues and enforce compliance.”

The ASA itself will be monitoring industry advertising for a range of different issues in the context of the crisis. It highlighted ads that trivialise gambling (by encouraging repetitive or frequent participation), or refer in any way to indicators of problem gambling (such as solitary play or playing late at night) as being of particular concern.

Ads that refer to personal problems, and suggest gambling as a form of escapism, or seek to exploit financial concerns, will also be targeted.

Furthermore, Covid-19 will not prevent the ASA from continuing efforts to protect children from gambling advertising. Last year’s efforts using avatar technology to assess the ads served to a simulated version of a child’s browsing profile will be repeated in 2020 to ensure operators are complying with all rules.

“Gambling operators are warned to pay particular attention to their responsibilities to comply with the Advertising Codes,” the ASA said in conclusion. “Along with our usual enforcement work, we will take swift action against ads that, in the context of the present crisis, are likely to exploit people’s vulnerabilities or encourage irresponsible behaviour.”

The ASA’s warning to operators follows industry standards body the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) announcing a ten-point plan for members to follow during the pandemic, in a bid to protect players from gambling realated harm. This will see responsible gambling messaging ramped up by operators. These, however, have been dismissed by the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group, the influential advocates for a regulatory overhaul in Great Britain, as "weak".

Guidance issued by the European Gaming and Betting Association, and backed by the BGC alongside a number of other country-specific operator bodies, also bans operators from referencing Covid-19 in their advertising.

Operators were also warned to ensure their adverts do not portray gambling as a solution to social, personal or financial problems, nor invite customers to gamble online as a solution to boredom.