Underage gambling? Very much a lottery

Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for. Andy Lawford, communications director of the hitherto rather obscure football betting site ThePool.com, must have thought he was on to a certain winner with his new ad campaign, which featured a no-holds barred exposé of an apparent loophole in UK gambling laws.

And so he was, if rapid, low-cost, brand building was his only aim. For barely had the outline of the campaign been made public (in this magazine, as it happened – but we won’t be charging a fee) than the most almighty national furore broke out. Lord Borrie, chairman of the ASA, took the unprecedented step of banning the ads just as they began to run. And Tessa Jowell – no less – in a forthright public condemnation, could barely make up her mind which element of the advertising was more “reprehensible”: the naked appeal to under-age betting (as culture minister, she shapes government policy on gambling) or the blatant parading of young female flesh (she is also women’s minister). In the wake of her outburst, we have also been promised an “investigation” into ThePool.com’s activities by the Metropolitan Police. Not surprisingly, Lawford has scuttled for cover after agreeing to change the ads.

So, a pantomime villain gets his just come-uppance? Well, granted the ads did little to promote a responsible attitude to gambling, or that they would win any awards for sophistication. But were these shortcomings in themselves enough to warrant such summary condemnation, and at such a high level? If only they were. The truth is the law is not as clear as it should be. Pool betting for 16- to 18-year-olds (what we are talking about here) is entirely legal; what is not is any inducement to under-age betting. So, it was not the sex content, which some might think was entirely appropriate to the intended audience of Zoo and Nuts, but the crude call to action, “Why wait ’til 18? Bet at 16”, that was the real cause of Lawford’s rout.

What a gift to the ASA and Jowell that was. The ASA has been able to act tough without fear of reproof (no bad thing for an organisation that is sometimes criticised for its timidity), while Jowell had the opportunity to give moral fervour and coherence to a Government policy that is increasingly riddled with contradiction.

On the one hand, HMG is committed to deregulating gambling, with the probable end result of a swathe of Las Vegas-style super casinos. On the other, it must be seen to force back into the bottle the very gambling genie it has been so enthusiatically letting out. This paradox is particularly apparent when it comes to gambling and young people. It may be patently obvious that encouraging young people to gamble is wrong, but what about “educating” them on the wisdom of playing the Lottery? And in particular, supporting fundraising, via a form of gambling, for the 2012 Olympic Games?

ThePool.com was an easy Aunt Sally for its critics. But other operators who come after it will undoubtedly take a subtler approach, one that avoids overt confrontation while exploiting the contradictions in the Government’s position, and in the law.

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