The Gambling Act, which lifts restrictions on TV advertising, came into force at the weekend, but the anticipated deluge of activity failed to materialise.
Casino operator Aspers claimed a media first by airing an ad during the first break after 9pm on Saturday – the first available opportunity for advertisers. However, it was only screened in the ITV Wales and Tyne Tees regions; hardly the national advertising bonanza that some moral guardians had feared.
A number of factors have played a part in the apparent hesitation. One of Gordon Brown’s first acts as Prime Minister was to shelve plans for a “supercasino”, which led to back-pedalling on various parts of the Gambling Act 2005. The newly installed Minister for Culture, James Purnell, announced, with only weeks to go before implementation, that the planned deregulation of advertising included in the Act was to be reconsidered.
This led to frantic negotiations between senior figures in the gambling industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and a voluntary code for gambling advertising was drawn up so that TV advertising could go ahead, albeit with tight restrictions, including a pre-9pm watershed ban (MW August 9).
It had been expected that online gambling companies would be among the first to take advantage of deregulation, but they appear to have been somewhat reluctant to commit large chunks of their marketing budgets immediately. Many already have sponsorship commitments with broadcasters that have yet to expire.
Tote chief executive Peter Jones terminated a three-year deal to sponsor Channel 4 racing only seven months into the agreement, saying that he wanted to advertise during breaks instead. However the contract runs until the end of the year and the company says it will not allocate any additional marketing funds until then.
The waiting game
Remote Gambling Association chief executive Clive Hawkswood says: “Many of the big companies are holding off until later on in the year. I won’t be surprised if it’s all a bit of a damp squib in early September. I’m sure that, for online casinos, there will be activity, but much of what one sees as sponsorship will be transferred to advertising and it will be interesting to see whether the man in the street notices much difference.”
Operators can advertise before 9pm during sports programmes and there is likely to be a flurry of activity around the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in France this weekend. The voluntary code states that advertising around sporting events should be restricted to sports betting. But this “loophole” will allow bookmakers to raise brand awareness before 9pm and encourage interest in their online operations, their biggest area of growth.
Experts say that bingo companies will increase their broadcast activity to compete with the online casino operators. Cashcade Ltd, owners of Foxy Bingo, admits it is diverting its energies from direct marketing into TV advertising and is planning to quadruple its spend in 2008.
Different legislation in Northern Ireland has also caused problems. Just as it seemed the parameters for advertisers were clear, last month the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising warned that broadcasters were unable to prevent commercials being screened in Northern Ireland. The Gambling Act 2005 does not yet extend to the province, making national campaigns impossible.
After some eleventh-hour discussions and legal advice, broadcasters say it is possible to advertise gambling legally in Northern Ireland providing the content is restricted to a simple description of services. However, it is up to individual broadcasters to decide what they deem appropriate content for Northern Ireland.
It is against this background of uncertainty and government sensitivity that gambling companies have been forced to plan, so it should be of little surprise that they have been more cautious than some anticipated.