The UK Gambling Commission, Advertising Standards Authority, Committee of Advertising Practice and the Remote Gambling Association have issued a joint letter to more than 450 gambling websites ordering all casino sites and their affiliates to remove ads and free-play games deemed to be particularly appealing to minors.
The letter was issued on 20 October in response to an article published earlier this month by TheTimes.co.uk titled “Cartoons Lured Kids to Online Gambling.” In the article, The Sunday Times reported that “some of Britain’s biggest gambling operators or targeting children with their favourite cartoon and storybook characters in online betting games.”
The Sunday Times article focused in particular on free-to-play demo slots themed after old fairytales and other games that seemingly appeal to children. Specific games cited by the Sunday Times as examples of these types of games include slots such as Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk and Moon Princess.
Free-to-play demo games featured on the websites of major gambling operators faced the brunt of the criticism for having no age verification to prevent minors from playing. Even though demo games do not involve real money play, their apparent appeal to children under 18 could set the stage for harmful gambling habits early in life.
This comes on the heels of a November 2016 study conducted by the Gambling Commission that found some 450,000 children aged 11-15 gamble on a weekly basis in the UK. The study found that as many as 9,000 of those children displayed traits indicative of problem gambling and that gambling among that age group in general is “considerably higher” than the numbers for drinking and drug use.
With the troubling survey results already in mind, it did not take the Gambling Commission and other regulators long to respond to this month’s Sunday Times report. Within two weeks, the letter was drafted and sent to hundreds of casino sites licensed in the UK.
The letter ordered gambling operators to “amend or remove immediately any ads on your website or third party media that are:
- Likely to appeal particularly to people aged 17 or younger (‘under 18’); and,
- generally available to view (‘freely accessible’).”
Piggy Payout, Fluffy Favourites, Pirate Princess and Jack and the Beanstalk were cited in the letter as examples of games that are likely “to enhance appeal to under 18s.” The notice also explains that an ad is likely to be particularly enticing to children if it features “particular colours, cartoon and comic book images, animals, child- and youth-oriented references.”
Gambling Advertising Under Scrutiny
UK media outlets have been scrutinizing advertising in the online gambling industry in recent months with a series of investigative pieces that have shined a light on certain practices in the industry.
Just last month, the Guardian published an article claiming certain tipsters were purposely giving bad advice to punters in an effort to boost their own commissions. Online tipers often have affiliate advertising deals with bookmakers which work by offering those tipsters a percentage of all losses of customers referred to those bookmakers.
The Guardian reported that tipsters were purposely giving losing tips in order to cause their followers to lose money to the bookmakers, resulting in larger commissions for the tipsters. Although the Guardian report dealt heavily in hearsay, it did correctly point to the inherent conflict of interest in tipsters who are supposed to give useful advice to punters despite earning commissions on their losses.
Sky Bet closed its affiliate program shortly after and cancelled agreements with untold numbers of affiliates. There are some doubts as to Sky Bet’s true motivations, but it is likely that the Guardian report served as a catalyst for the decision to shut down the affiliate program.
Two weeks later, the Advertising Standards Authority censured four gambling operators for a fake news story that was spread online by affiliates of those operators. The fake news story told the tale of a man dealing with financial hardship trying to take care of his sick wife. The story then detailed how the man played a casino game online, won a jackpot and was able to take his wife on their dream vacation.
Embedded in the news stories were affiliate links directing readers to visit Sky Vegas, 888, Ladbrokes or Casumo. The operators in question never approved of the ads – it was simply a rogue affiliate using underhanded tactics to get his commission-generating links in front of people and enticing them to gamble. Even so, UK regulators reminded operators that they are considered responsible for the actions of their affiliates.
Increased scrutiny from the media and regulators is already leading to changes in how advertising is conducted online. Numerous online casino operators have sent notifications to affiliates warning that changes to the advertising rules are likely and that affiliates should make sure they are strictly adhering to all advertising standards at the risk of termination.
As affiliates ourselves, we are following this story closely. We have always operated under the belief that ethics should be prioritized over everything else in this business and will continue doing so moving forward. It has been so much fun being involved in online gambling, but we are keenly aware that the potential for problem gambling is real. Thus, we consider promoting responsible gambling to be an obligation to our readers.
Wes Burns co-founded OnlineCasinoSites.com with a mission to help gamblers understand and navigate the regulated online casino market in all countries around the world. Wes is a respected gambling journalist, working in the industry since 2008.