Advertising disguised as news claimed gambler cleared debts and funded medical treatment using online casino games
Four betting firms could face fines over adverts disguised as news articles that “targeted vulnerable people” with claims about a gambler who cleared his debts and paid for his wife’s medical treatment by playing online casino games.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld complaints against Ladbrokes, 888, SkyBet and Casumo over adverts placed by “affiliates”, which are agencies paid to directi gamblers to online casinos and bookmakers.
While the companies said they did not approve or condone the adverts, the ASA held them responsible because they stood to benefit from them.
The Labour party called for “strong action” from industry regulator the GamblingCommission, which can impose financial penalties, to prevent more of the “disgusting” adverts.
Details of the ads also provoked criticism of the affiliate model, revealed in the Guardian earlier this month, under which anonymous tipsters get paid a commission for sending new customers to betting firms.
One of the ads, which appeared on three websites, referred to “William” who was “£130,000 in debt after having to sell the house and continue to pay out of pocket for his wife’s cancer-related medical bills their insurance wouldn’t cover”.
“William took to Facebook one night in the hospital lobby to update his friends and family on his wife’s health,” it continued. “A little tired and admittedly a bit repressed, William stumbled upon an ad for Sky Vegas.
“With little to no money to spend he admits he laughed and almost scrolled past it until he saw they were offering a promotion that would reward him with £10 free at the Jackpot 7 game, which at over £700,000 was too hard to pass up.”
The ad, which the ASA said “targeted vulnerable people” stated that “William” had won “over 30 times his annual salary in a single spin,” adding that “his debt and financial worries came to an abrupt end”.
The ASA upheld complaints against the “socially irresponsible” advert and three almost identical adverts that used the same narrative but named 888, Ladbrokes and Casumo instead.
The watchdog said the adverts breached the UK non-broadcast advertising code because they suggested gambling “could provide an escape from personal problems such as depression and that it could be a solution to financial concerns”.
It also ruled that the adverts gave the incorrect impression that they were genuine news articles.
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson MP, who recently called for a ban on gambling adverts on football shirts, said:“The disgraceful cynicism of these ads is breathtaking.
“While these ads were produced by an affiliate, they are ultimately the responsibility of the betting companies whose products they were selling.
“The Gambling Commission needs to take strong action against the beneficiaries of these disgusting ads, to make clear that nothing like this can be allowed to happen again.”
The Commission has fined betting firms BGO and Lottoland over misleading adverts, including those placed by affiliates, but declined to say whether it was considering penalties for Ladbrokes, SkyBet, 888 and Casumo.
The Gambling Commission said: “We expect operators to take action to ensure that they have a clear view of what their affiliates are doing on their behalf.
“Where operators fail to do this, we will not hesitate to use our powers to hold them to account.”
Ladbrokes said: “We take this very seriously and have been working to improve the types of advertising and marketing used by affiliates.
“Nobody in Ladbrokes Coral believes that this sort of ‘fake news’ marketing has a place in the sector.
“We have been reducing the number of affiliates we work with as well as clamping down hard on anyone using our name without our knowledge in a bid to curtail this sort of activity going forward.”
A spokesperson for 888 said: “The company removed the advertorial as soon as it was made aware of it and has since terminated its business relationship with the affiliate marketing agency.”
The spokesperson added that the company has “taken further steps to ensure this type of incident does not occur again”.
Sky Vegas said it had not been aware of the advert, and had since terminated its agreement with the affiliate and ended its affiliate programme altogether. Casumo blamed an external “media buyer”.
Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of online gambling trade body the Remote Gambling Association, said: “It would be wrong to tar all affiliates with the same brush but there are now too many examples of them acting in a way that is unacceptable.
“Hopefully lessons will be learned, but, if not, affiliates can expect to see operators reconsidering their relationships and the real prospect of direct regulatory action.”
Source: The Guardian