From next March, the “gamble responsibly” slogan will be discontinued on wagering advertisements. In its place, the federal government has announced a selection of alternatives, which it says will minimise problem gambling.
These new, stronger “taglines” – such as “chances are you’re about to lose” – are certainly an improvement on their largely meaningless predecessor. However, the likelihood of their preventing or reducing harm is low.
The government says the new lines have been researched and are evidence-based. Yet, the evidence from public health is that such messages, in isolation, have very limited effects. Other areas of public health success tell us changes to the way harmful products are advertised and consumed have much more impact.
For example, one of the early, and important steps in reducing tobacco consumption was restrictions on sport sponsorship and advertising. Messaging on tobacco products played a part, but by itself had, at best, modest effects.
Similarly, road safety achievements relied on changes to driver training, enforcement of road rules (such as drink driving and speeding laws), and improvements in roads and cars. Dramatic advertising and slogans arguably reinforced these, rather than acting independently to reduce road trauma.
Anyone with sport-loving children will testify to incessant gambling advertising. Kids now seem more likely to quote odds than player performance when assessing the likelihood of a win. This “normalisation” – treating gambling as integral to the game – has many parents greatly concerned.
Gambling ads saturate our screens
Gambling advertising is indeed at alarming levels. The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation estimates there are an average of 948 gambling ads on free-to-air TV daily.
The changes to taglines are elements of the Consumer Protection Framework for online gambling. This was negotiated between all Australian governments in the wake of the inquiry by former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell into “illegal offshore wagering sites”.
The O’Farrell inquiry was initiated in 2015 because of fears of the impacts of offshore gambling sites. However, it was clear that the behaviour of wagering operators licensed in Australia was also inflicting great harm. The inquiry’s recommendations reflected this.
Measures so far implemented include improved verification of customer ID, prohibition of lines of credit being offered, restrictions on offering inducements to gamble or open a wagering account, and a voluntary opt-out pre-commitment scheme.
Online wagering is Australia’s second largest gambling sector, measured by losses. It grew rapidly during the pandemic restrictions, and is now estimated at between $7 to $8 billion annually. Poker machine gambling in clubs, pubs and casinos remains the largest sector, with about $15 billion in losses each year.
So, will the new taglines work?
“Gamble responsibly” certainly does little to dissuade gamblers. It downloads responsibility for gambling harm on to those experiencing it. It also allows gambling operators to avoid responsibility, while appearing concerned. Increased realisation of this has lead to recent calls from many quarters for a system of precommitment. This would allow people to set spending limits, which will stop them losing more than they plan. It would also help curb Australia’s runaway problem of gambling-based money laundering.
Pre-commitment is currently optional for online wagering. It should be universally mandated for all gambling forms, as it is in Norway.
As far as advertising is concerned, there would almost certainly be widespread support for gambling advertising to be scrapped altogether. A recent poll showed over 60% of people support a ban on sports sponsorship by gambling companies. It’s no stretch to imagine a ban on gambling advertising would be similarly supported.
Standing in the way of this are the commercial interests not just of the bookies, but broadcasters and some sporting codes. The TV rights for popular sports such as AFL, NRL, and cricket sell for billions. This is largely because the broadcasters know they can sell advertising for these at premium prices. The bookies spent over $287 million on ads in 2021, making them among Australia’s leading advertisers. There would be serious and powerful opposition to such a step.
However, banning sporting sponsorship, along with broadcast and other advertising, was a huge step forward in reducing harm from tobacco. It greatly limited the capacity of tobacco companies to recruit new smokers. The glamour and excitement of sport and sporting heroes was a hugely attractive association for tobacco. It is currently a hugely attractive association for bookies.
The target market for online wagering is young men, but inevitably, children are subjected to this as well. Bombarding children with positive associations between sport and gambling means wagering is normalised. It becomes closely associated with an activity many young people greatly enjoy and admire.
When tobacco sponsorship and advertising revenue was threatened, the tobacco industry argued sport would suffer. Those dire predictions did not eventuate.
Phasing out advertising and sponsorship over a reasonable period of time would allow existing arrangements to be honoured, and give sporting codes and others time to adjust to a new reality.
It would also mean new generations of young people would no longer come to associate sport with a product that causes enormous harm to those who use it and those around them.
Gambling should be legal, and regulated. But it doesn’t follow that those who promote it should be able to exploit the excitement of sport or digital media as vehicles to market, and normalise, their wares.
Australia’s parents would undoubtedly breathe a collective sigh of relief if watching sport was no longer accompanied by endless ads for bookies. It would also mean those struggling to end a harmful gambling habit could again relax and simply enjoy the game.