by Claudio Russo
Tom Waterhouse is taking over my television. I think he’s taking over my mate Dan’s television as well. Dan’s brother is having the same problem, while my cousin can’t seem to watch his favourite show without tomwaterhouse.com flashing up on his screen. We’ve asked Tom to leave, even opting to change the channel every now and then, but one way or another, he’s there, waiting for the opportune moment to tell us that he “knows what punters want.” Tom’s not our only constant visitor. The TAB seems to be doing a pretty good job of it as well, not to mention Sportsbet, Betfair, Sportingbet and a host of other betting agencies. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they want us to gamble or something.
I explain our experience to Associate Professor Michael Baigent, of the Flinders University Human Behaviour and Health Research Unit.
“The gambling industry has been facing a tidal wave of bad publicity. With some clever marketing and advertising, agencies are making good ground by riding it back,” he says.
But why target us? I can’t imagine many fellow 25-year-olds having the extra pocket money to set up betting accounts online. I’m struggling to buy beers on the weekend, let alone punt on the horses. Professor Baigent explains why the advertising campaigns are aimed at young men.
“For young men, particularly those between 18 and 25, the reward centre in the brain is charged and performing really well and is very receptive to rewarding situations. But the area of the brain that facilitates cognitive, mature decisions isn’t fully formed,” he says.
“The younger male age group is then more susceptible to gambling and the rewarding sensations that come with winning. Unfortunately this is twofold. They are also less susceptible to making the mature decision of stopping when they’re losing. Therefore, you could say you’re age group is targeted more because you’re the best consumer for their product.”
A study commissioned by beyondblue in 2008, noted that young males have a significantly higher risk of developing gambling problems compared to other groups in the community. In NSW, young adult males aged between 18 and 24 made up 34.3 per cent of problem and at risk gamblers in the State.
Self-reported stress, depression and suicide ideation was higher among this group compared to any others. While the study also recognised the lack of evidence that proves whether one set of conditions precedes the other, it was clear that people with gambling problems also had a series of psychological and behavioural disorders. With this in mind, one would assume those most at risk wouldn’t be targeted.
So I decided to carry out an experiment. I would count the number of gambling advertisements that appeared during my favourite programs. Considering that most of my favourite programs are of the sporting nature and I fall within the demographic, I expected to find a reasonably high number. High was an understatement.
In the space of an English Premier League football match, there were 15 gambling and betting advertisements (not including the multitude of betting agencies that advertise in the stadium, in full view of the cameras). There were Melbourne Cup odds, live betting opportunities, odds for fixtures next week and countless others. All of these bets could be made online, simply by registering an account with the respective agency. Once registered, the punter may even download the agency’s smartphone application and conveniently bet via their mobile; too easy.
Professor Baigent’s message rang loud and clear. Betting agencies have brought technology and convenience to the industry, and with that, a new generation of punters. Gone are the days of smoke-filled TABs, of horrendous queues that often meant a bet gone begging, or of old form guides that hung on the walls like patchwork wallpaper. These days punters can bet anywhere, anytime, and pretty much on anything.
As such advertising becomes more prevalent, the Government has taken preliminary steps of recommending changes to the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 (IGA). The IGA’s main purpose is to reduce the scope of online problem gambling by limiting the provision of online gambling services through technologies such as the Internet.
Its review focused on the growth of online gambling services and the development of new technologies, including smartphones, which may accelerate the current trend towards the take up of online gambling services. The Terms of Reference listed a number of other focus areas, however, for the purposes of this story, let us focus on Point 6.0 Advertising and Promotion.
A number of submissions to the IGA raised concerns regarding the volume of advertising of online gambling services, particularly sports betting advertising on television and the associated risks toward vulnerable groups. Some submissions also described the increasing pervasiveness of gambling advertising in society and the potential for young people to become interested in gambling due to the normalisation of these activities.
Not surprisingly, there were widespread calls for the banning of such advertising altogether. Clubs Australia, a high-profile industry body that represents the interests of Australia’s 6,000 licensed clubs, was one of them.
“While the Interactive Gambling Act prohibits the advertising of interactive gambling services (with questionable levels of success), there are virtually no restrictions on the advertising of gambling products such as sports betting, online or through mainstream media. Children who watch sporting events cannot avoid gambling promotions which take place both during the match and commercial breaks,” said Clubs Australia in its submission. It went on to say, “Clubs Australia advocates the development of a uniform, national ban on gambling advertising, implemented homogeneously across the gambling industry.”
The (now defunct) Responsible Gambling Advocacy Centre (RGAC) made similar remarks. The RGAC felt that online gambling advertising is having a negative affect on the community and on sport, reducing it to a game of finding the best odds rather than a show of athleticism and inspiration. Not only are commercial breaks and live odds announcements advertised throughout broadcast matches, but supporters at games are also faced with simultaneous gambling promotions. This includes bubbly young women parading the grounds in short-shorts and mini skirts while handing out flyers that illustrate odds, exotic betting options and combinations. I know this because I was approached by one at this year’s NRL Grand Final.
Jackie, in her green tight short-shorts and TAB boob tube, had me in her sights before I had her in mine. Her long eyelashes batted and her smile sparkled as she handed me her flyer.
Kate Carnell, Chief Executive Office of Beyond Blue, highlighted the dangerous correlations between problem gambling and mental health issues, and pointed out that there are appropriate and inappropriate times and places to advertise.
“I think we’ve got to be a bit careful about mixing up sport and gambling. In other words, you’re allowed to go to the footy and not be tempted every five minutes to put on another $5 or $10 bet. I think it’s about making sure we get the balance right. There’s no drama about whether you want, from my perspective, to put a couple of dollars on who you think might win the footy, but being in your face every five minutes to bet on who is going to have the next kick or score the next goal… makes it incredibly tough for people who may have a problem with gambling,” she says.
Anthony Ball, Executive Director for Clubs Australia, agrees. “Pre-eminent researchers such as Dr Sally Gainsbury and Professor Alex Blaszczynski have suggested that young people are particularly susceptible to gambling promotions in advertising. As such it’s important that any advertising of online gambling products be done in a manner that is not likely to be viewed by minors,” he says.
As yet another Melbourne Cup has come and gone, it is likely online gambling has increased its presence in the lives of Australia’s young people, and more specifically, young men. While alcohol and cigarettes have been reined in over recent years, gambling continues to absorb new customers everyday with clever advertising and more convenient technology. Most are capable of betting within their budget, but for many young male problem gamblers in this country, the increasing presence of gambling advertising makes their battle even harder.