Regulators crack down on gambling ads appealing to children

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Last week, the Gambling Commission, Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), and Remote Gambling Association, issued a joint letter to hundreds of remote gambling operators warning them of the need to take down any adverts that may appeal to children in breach of advertising regulations.

The letter, which came in the wake of press reporting claiming that a number of adverts on gambling operators’ websites were freely accessible and appealing to under 18s, reminded operators of their obligations under the CAP Code. The CAP Code provides that marketing communications for gambling must be socially responsible, with particular regard to the need to protect under 18s. Marketing communications are specifically prohibited from being “of particular appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture”. As set out in CAP’s guidance, an ad is considered to have “particular appeal to children or young persons” if it is deemed likely to appeal more to under 18s than to over 18s.

The letter advised all operators immediately to amend or remove any adverts on both their websites and any third party media that are: (i) likely to appeal particularly to under 18s; and (ii) “generally available to view”. No guidance was provided in the letter as to what “generally available to view” might mean. Whilst in many scenarios it will be clear cut – for example the home page of an operator’s website or, as shown in the Ladbrokes case, direct mail to registered players – in other, less typical areas, it is likely to cause a headache for operators.

The letter acknowledged that what is “likely to appeal in particular to under 18s” is subjective and that operators would have “difficult and nuanced decisions” to make in assessing their adverts for compliance, citing the Foxy Bingo case as an example of the complexities in this area. The regulators did, however, advise anyone uncertain about whether an ad might be in breach to “exercise caution and amend or withdraw the ad pending any discussion with the CAP Copy Advice team”.

They cited various ASA rulings in their advice - against 888, Ever Adventure, Spin Genie and Booty Pirates - all of which illustrate the types of ad that the ASA is likely to find in breach of the CAP Code in this area. The following statement in the letter also provides further insight into their approach here:

“The use of particular colours, cartoon and comic book images, animals, child- and youth-orientated references and names of games such as “Piggy Payout”, “Fluffy Favourites”, “Pirate Princess” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” are likely, alone or in combination, to enhance appeal to under 18s.”

The above has been wrongly interpreted by many in the media as a ban on these types of games. In fact, the letter has not introduced any new regulation that was not already in place. What has changed dramatically, however, is that the regulators - clearly under pressure from the recent sustained media attention - have moved to emphasise the severity with which they view such failings and their eagerness to clamp down on non-compliance. Gambling ads are regularly of particular interest to CAP and the ASA, but the recent media furore appears to have ushered in a new phase of regulatory scrutiny.

For bingo and gaming operators in particular – who often offer games that utilise bright colours and cartoon characters – this clamp down is particularly significant. They do not have to comply with any rule that they technically did not before, however the parameters of a compliant ad appear to have been narrowed, whilst the regulators’ enthusiasm for enforcement action has heightened. As compliance with the CAP Code is a requirement of the Gambling Commission’s ‘licence conditions and codes of practice’, such enforcement action may not only come from the ASA/CAP, but the Gambling Commission, which has the power to review, attach conditions to, and revoke gambling licences. Operators would be wise to remind themselves of their responsibilities under the CAP Code and review their websites for compliance. With the starting shot fired, it is likely that enforcement action is on the way.