This week, the advertising industry has learnt the scope of a major new opportunity coming its way.
As of September, casinos, betting shops and online gaming sites will, for the first time since the introduction of the 2005 Gambling Act, be able to advertise on television. And there is little doubt that a burgeoning sector, which has hitherto been inhibited by severe communications restrictions, will embrace the opportunity with open arms.
So trebles all round. In the first place for a number of newish (and some older) brands, which will now be able create greater awareness for themselves through what is still regarded as the most efficient single medium for that task. And in the second, for advertising agencies and TV broadcasters, who will welcome this handsome opportunity to plug the gap recently created by more stringent curbs on advertising "junk" food. After all, it’s not every day that a prodigiously high spending new sector comes along.
Of course, there’s a catch. The ads will still have to conform to a mind-bendingly complicated set of criteria, designed to minimise the dangers of problem gambling. For example, gambling ads must not appeal to children and young people, no ads must appear around programmes appealing to under 18s (indeed, no one under 25 must appear in the ads themselves). In addition, there must be no hint of seduction or sexual success conveyed. Most blandly, but most insidiously perhaps, the ads must not "portray, condone or encourage" behaviour that could lead to "financial, emotional or social harm". Where do you draw the line there?
Never mind, though. The UK advertising industry seems to thrive masochistically on the creative challenge presented by regulatory restrictions. The more painful they are, the better the creative product. Tobacco advertising led the way, with classic campaigns from Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges, not to mention Hamlet cigars. More recently cars (think Honda particularly) and drink (Guinness, Smirnoff) have taken up the creative baton.
The real minefield, however, lies not so much in the prospective restrictions as in the obiter dicta which accompany them. As might be expected under the current regulatory regime, responsibility for policing the ads has been placed with the Advertising Standards Authority. But, clearly fearing the ASA may not be man enough for the job, minister for sport Richard Caborn said rather ominously: "If (new rules) are insufficient to ensure proper public protection, the Government will consider using its additional powers to impose further restrictions." This is a hostage to fortune, and potentially a fairly nasty one at that.
This Government displays a contradictory ambivalence about advertising "freedom". On the one hand it encourages us to subscribe to what might be called the "Optivita code". Remember the bit at the end of the ad, where Ray Winstone turns to the camera and shrugs, "Well, don’t ask me. I’m not going to tell you, am I?" In the market state of today, a contractual relationship with personal responsibility is steadily displacing former ideological and religious imperatives. Government must reflect that changing social reality.
Yet, at the same time, this has been one of the most interfering and nannying administrations in recent times. In an attempt to deflect attention from the deeper, underlying issues affecting, say, obesity or antisocial behaviour, it has on more than one occasion been happy to make advertising the whipping boy. It’s so easy, so voter-friendly. Think what a field-day the politicians could have with such an obvious, unambiguous, vice as gambling if things go badly wrong. Admen, you have been warned.
Stuart Smith, Editor