By Scott Longley, Editorial Director, Regulus Insights
The timing of the leaking of a letter from Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury to his government colleague Sajid Javid, the culture secretary, about the issue of betting adverts around sporting events was unfortunate for the gambling industry.
The publication of the letter in the Daily Mail (of course) came on the same day that the new gambling industry body Senet launched its own responsible gambling advertisements, with the tag line ‘when the fun stops, stop’.
Conspiracy theorists within the gambling sector are likely to see dark motives behind the timing of the leak, but whether coincidental or not the reported contents of the letter suggest there is unlikely to be any let up in political pressure on the sector in the run up to May’s General Election.
Alexander said in his letter he was “increasingly concerned” by the prevalence of gambling-related adverts around televised sporting events that, because they occur before 9pm, are more likely to be watched by children. Alexander went on: “It has now become almost impossible to watch any kind of sports event without being bombarded by highly solicitous advertising. The decision by the previous government to allow betting companies to advertise during sports events before the watershed is completely anomalous. It was, of course, part of a grubby deal cooked up by the last Labour government.”
This weaponising of the anti-gambling debate on the part of the Liberal Democrats is sure to make life even trickier for the sector. Polling evidence last year would suggest the party sees gambling as one of its potential touchstones with potential voters. A YouGov survey in April last year found that fully 71% of intended Lib Dem voters thought there should be further tightening of the regulations around gambling.
Barely have the Senet ads got an airing, and the industry is once again on the back foot. As a part of the new industry body platform, the industry has already imposed a voluntary ban on the advertising of free bets before 9pm, but this has clearly failed to quell disquiet among the industry’s critics over the insistency of ‘in-play’ ads around football matches.
Specifically, Alexander was calling for the DCMS to speed its own response to a recent review of gambling advertising issues by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The DCMS responded by repeating its mantra that player protection was “at the heart of gambling policy”, adding that its review would be published shortly.
The difficulty for those now lobbying the government is to know what to expect next. The ASA report, covered previously by this blog, did not recommend any actions with regard to pre-9pm watershed. Recall, though, that it did note that the ‘bet now’ ads typified by bet365’s Ray Winstone spots were due further scrutiny. “We’ll be more proactive on issues relating to social responsibility, especially around ‘toughness’ in ads and particular appeal to children, finding ways to continue to source data to inform our decision-making,” the ASA said back in November.
As the news this week about plain packaging of cigarettes has proved, just because there is every indication that an issue is being kicked into the long grass doesn’t mean it is going to stay there. The shooting of Labour foxes is likely to be a general pastime on the part of both coalition partners, and the Liberal Democrats in particular will be looking to aim both barrels at any issue which they think they can legitimately own. Increased regulation of is arguably one of those.
The Daily Mail article suggested the DCMS was ‘resistant’ to change, but it is unlikely the gambling industry and its lobbyists can take much comfort from that. In the words of Alexander, “this is a matter of principle, and I believe the time to act is now”. It’s the handicap bet the industry never wanted to see come about – bet now v act now. There can only be one winner.