The ASA rules that the ads of two gambling companies were socially irresponsible

United Kingdom

On 3 August 2022, the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA) published two rulings, each upholding complaints in relation to gambling ads.

Both ads, a TV ad for LC International Ltd (trading as Coral), and an in-app ad for a casino game marketed by Rank Digital Gaming (Alderney) Ltd, were deemed to be socially irresponsible by the ASA.

The Coral ad

Coral’s TV ad showed cinema-style footage of a horse race, with close-up shots of spectators looking engrossed and cheering. The voiceover, which was accompanied by the sounds of hooves, shouts from the crowd and dramatic music, stated “Exciting, isn’t it? When your horse wins by a nose. But if that’s exciting, how about three furlongs ago? Look, look, any horse could win. How about now when your horse is under starters orders? How long have you waited for those gates to crash open? But that’s nothing. What about earlier still? Your horse is the only horse that matters. Coral. Get closer to the action.”

Two complainants were concerned that the ad breached the BCAP Code by portraying, condoning or encouraging gambling behaviour that was socially irresponsible or could lead to financial, social or emotional harm.

Coral argued that the ad deliberately didn’t include any depiction of betting, and that the only reference to gambling was by way of the Coral brand. On that basis, they claimed that if the ad did not portray or encourage gambling, it could not be deemed irresponsible. Coral explained that the ad was intended to show the excitement of a race, rather than a bet. Clearcast agreed with this, stating that excitement was a normal response to the atmosphere of a crowd and a tightly contested sporting event.

However, the ASA did not agree with this analysis. Whilst it did acknowledge that there was no actual depiction of or explicit reference to betting, Coral banners could be seen around the track and in the crowd, and each horse had “Coral” written on its saddle. In addition, the repeated reference to “your horse” in the voiceover was, the ASA ruled, likely to prompt viewers to watch the ad from the perspective of someone who has placed a bet on a horse. This was reinforced by the phrase “Your horse is the only horse that matters”.

The ASA also considered that the intense audio-effects, close-ups, dramatic music and POV shots, taken together with the voiceover and reference to “your horse” winning, carried a significant risk of only portraying the ‘highs’ associated with successful bets, which might be particularly dangerous for vulnerable viewers.

As the ASA considered that there was a significant risk of the ad disproportionately affecting a vulnerable group, it ruled that the ad was socially irresponsible, and that it breached BCAP Code rule 1.2, which states that ads must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to the audience and to society, and rules 17.3 and 17.3.1 which state that ads cannot portray, condone or encourage gambling behaviour that is socially irresponsible or that could lead to financial, social or emotional harm.

The Rank ad

The in-app ad for the “Wolf Gold” mobile app casino game was shown in the “Lucky Night” app. The ad featured an image of a prize wheel and a wolf’s face, with two women at the top of the page. The text stated “Everyone wants to solve theirs [sic] financial problems … Click the ‘DOWNLOAD’ button right now and start to earn … In fact, it’s all very easy to do with our application … pay off loans, buy a car and a nice house … and make a lot of money!” Text beneath this stated “WELCOME BONUS £400”.

The ad was reported to the ASA on the basis that it was irresponsible for suggesting that gambling could provide a solution to financial concerns and provide financial security.

Rank agreed with the complainant and explained that the ad had been designed by an affiliate organisation (WakeApp) without Rank’s knowledge. Rank accepted that, had they been aware of the ad, they would not have approved it. After being made aware of the ad, Rank had terminated its relationship with WakeApp. WakeApp explained that the ad had not complied with its own internal policies either, however did not clarify why the ad had therefore been published.

As the ad clearly suggested that players could use the game to make money and to alleviate financial concerns, the ASA ruled that it was socially irresponsible and that it breached rule 16.1 of the CAP Code, which requires gambling ads to be socially responsible, especially with regard to ensuring vulnerable people are not harmed or exploited, and that rules 16.3.1 and 16.3.4 had also been breached due to the ad encouraging socially irresponsible behaviour which could lead to financial harm, and by suggesting that gambling could be a solution to financial concerns.

Conclusion

The Coral ruling arguably takes an extreme position by suggesting that the ASA will regard gambling ads which are exhilarating and which focus on the excitement of placing a bet as being dangerous for those who are vulnerable, especially where those customers have decided to try and abstain from betting. This is a difficult line for operators to draw because, applying this ruling, many gambling ads will likely pose at least some risk to vulnerable customers. Operators have an interest in showing the anticipation of placing a bet and watching a race, and many viewers would probably not associate this behaviour with having any sort of gambling addiction or problem.

Following this ruling, operators should undertake a holistic review of their ads to make sure that the context of the ad and the various elements of the ad, when taken together, do not cause it to be deemed socially irresponsible.

The Rank ruling should be taken as a reminder about the scope of responsibility operators have for the actions of their affiliates. Whilst Rank had not been made aware of the ad, it was held by the ASA as being responsible for the ad’s content. In addition to the ASA’s ruling, the Gambling Commission of Great Britain would also hold Rank accountable for this breach on the basis that Social responsibility code provision 1.1.2 of the Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP) provides that operators are responsible for the third parties with which they contract for the provision of any aspect of their business related to gambling, meaning that such third parties must comply with the LCCP as if they were bound by the same conditions. In particular, licensees (and therefore, their affiliates) are bound to comply with the CAP and BCAP advertising codes, as per Social responsibility code provision 5.1.6 of the LCCP.

Operators should ensure they have robust advertising policies in place for their affiliates to follow, as well as contractual obligations which require affiliates to comply with applicable advertising regulation. Operators should also ensure they are aware of the activities of their affiliates and that they have adequate oversight of any advertising.