It is not every day that the UK advertising industry finds a whole new sector suddenly demanding its services. But September 1 will be such a day, as new rules sweeping away curbs on gambling ads come into play.
For many years gambling has been hidden away like a guilty secret, but now it is about to burst onto television screens as broadcast advertising restrictions are scrapped in line with the Gambling Act 2005.
Online gambling adverts are expected to be the first to hit our screens and radios, with the Tote and high street betting chains dipping their toes in the water later on.
But hold your horses, greyhounds and roulette wheels. A major problem has already arisen with the Act, which some believe was hurriedly stitched together before the last general election and rushed through before anyone could complain about its extensive deregulation of betting.
The Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands, so nationwide advertising campaigns will not be possible for those television channels unable to prevent broadcast in these jurisdictions. According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, that means all of the UK’s TV stations apart from ITV 1.
Thus the legislation will become redundant before it even comes into effect unless this wrinkle is ironed out. Have little doubt that some loophole will be found, since too much money is riding on this for the Gambling Act to be accidentally stillborn. Only once a solution is found can the potentially massive advertising onslaught start to get underway.
We will then be able to test the predictions of the doom-sayers who believe that gambling ads will tempt some players down the path of ruin and despair. Church leaders and other lobbyists such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists say it is inevitable that hard sell TV ads for betting, particularly internet gambling sites, will drive vulnerable players into addiction.
The new Government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, himself the son of a Presbyterian preacher, is furiously back-peddling on the gambling deregulation promised by predecessor Tony Blair. So out go supercasinos. Culture secretary James Purnell is making threatening noises about scrapping deregulation of gambling ads altogether unless the industry proves that it is socially responsible.
This week the industry has vowed only to advertise after the 9pm watershed, except in the case of sports betting around sporting events. It will also prohibit sponsorship by gambling brands on merchandise aimed at children such as replica soccer kits. Ads will even have to contain the phone number of a problem gambling helpline.
This is hardly likely to assuage the worries of the hellfire and brimstone lobby. And worse than that, some in the industry warn that the pledges are bound to backfire. Post-watershed advertising will lead to a scramble for the limited supply of airtime between 9pm and 11pm, forcing up the price and causing advertisers to push their messages even more aggressively as they seek to make them pay.
Against this background, some voices are calling for restraint post-September 1. Since Gordon Brown could at any moment call time on gambling ads, there will be a temptation for betting brands to pile into broadcast media before the door slams shut. But such a stampede would only fuel calls to turn the clocks back on deregulation.
Gaming marketers are being urged to tread lightly and to do nothing to scare the horses, to avoid any hint of encouraging underage or excessive play in their ads.
Whether gambling brands, some of whom are famed for their gung-ho and maverick approach to regulators, follow this advice is another matter.
For now, let’s see if the little problem of Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands can be sorted out. Then we will see whether commercial television and the advertising industry really have hit the gambling jackpot.
By David Benady, Contributing Editor