'Free Bet' Watershed Is A Red Herring, But Has The Gambling Industry Done Enough To Earn Self-Regulation?

It can't just be me, then, who has noticed that sports gambling adverts follow you whenever you happen to be watching or listening. When you're tuned in to anything else, it's normally bingo. I particularly love the Foxy Bingo strapline of "bringing people together" with the Jeremy Kyle show. For what? A punch up and lie detector results. Sounds great -- let's get our eyes down for "two fat ladies" and "legs eleven'" and DNA results.

Turn on commercial radio and the commentators are forever telling you what the latest odds are, from their sports bookmaker sponsor, including up to-the-minute updates on the cash-out value of a bet. The ad breaks are similarly filled with calls to "get on it" or "have a go on that." In fact, I can't remember the last time I watched a football game on commercial television -- which, let's face it, is just about all football -- without ad breaks enticing me to bet which are punctuated by a sponsor telling me to having a punt with some free money, or at least a "matched" bet.



So it's good to see that the main players in the industry have together agreed that adverts featuring free bets cannot be aired before the 9 pm watershed, which basically only leaves the second half of midweek and Monday night games. The Senet Group is the gambling equivalent of the Portman Group, which has self-regulated its own industry to avoid any draconian outside new regulation coming in.

The sentiment, at least, is good. I'm not sure what the point is of barring free bet adverts before 9 am. If it's to protect children, that sounds great - but there's the small point that they can't actually open betting accounts anyway. So you can make whatever offers you like, children are not "in market."

The more interesting question is whether this is going to be enough for the gambling industry. The ASA is reevaluating how it views the industry and the Committee of Advertising Practice is due to report on gambling advertising by the end of the year. 

As a preemptive step, the Senet Group has promised that a fifth of bookie shop window space will now be given over to responsible gambling messages and widows will not advertise the high-stakes jackpot machines they have inside. The group is also promising a major campaign to promote responsible gambling.

By the end of the year they will know whether they have done enough. Presumably the big lines in the sand for the industry are maintaining jackpot machines in bookie shops and not having further restrictions placed on advertising, other than the 9 pm free money adverts.

As an aside, I actually had an advert and Web copy banned from one well-known bingo brand that was advising people they could get free money by signing up for an account. I argued to the ASA that this was misleading because the money could not be withdrawn and could only be spent on the brand's bingo games. My complaint was upheld and the brand, and its rivals, now have to make clear in their marketing that "free" money is credit you have to play games with -- it's not a free gift.

So the start of next year will see us only a few months from a general election, and there will doubtless be pressure on the parties to take a tougher line on the gambling industry.

That's why the Senet Group is a sensible idea. The main players in the industry will no doubt be telling the political parties they can be trusted to do a 'Portman' and keep their own house in order.

Given that gambling is a perfectly legal and regulated past time, I suspect they have probably done enough. 

The 9 pm watershed, as I've mentioned, is a red herring because it only protects people who are not old enough to open an account anyway. There will still be a whole generation of young sports fans growing up thinking nothing of the national game being sponsored by bookmakers with ad breaks filled with their rival offerings.

So will someone like the Labour party -- which talks tough on advertising, particularly around junk food and children -- choose to make a point about gambling?

Considering the income it brings in for the government, I doubt it. But I suspect it will be highly considered by all parties. Which only makes the formation of the Senet Group an even more sensible move. Not for the red herring of a 9 pm free bet watershed but for the other measures it is taking and the very notion of the industry acting responsibly to govern itself, saving a future government the bother.

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