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Bookies make moves to resuscitate public image

22nd September 2014 10:13 am GMT

Is the bookmakers’ Senet Group a case of ‘too little, too late’ or a positive step in the right direction?

Last Monday, Gala Coral, Ladbrokes, Paddy Power and William Hill announced their latest move to address public concerns about problem gambling in Britain with the establishment of an independent watchdog, Senet Group, to enforce minimum standards on advertising.

Those standards include the removal of all fixed odds betting terminal (FOBT) adverts from shop windows, a promise to devote 20 per cent of window advertising to responsible gambling messages and a self-imposed ban on free bet offers on television before 9pm.

Even the bookmakers’ fiercest critics – and there are many –  greeted this as a positive move. While everyone noted that this is clearly a move to pre-empt any regulatory actions stemming from numerous advertising and licensing reviews, it would be crazy to criticise them for that. It is their failure to keep ahead of the game over the last two years that has got the bookies into such a sticky political situation.

Labour’s shadow minister for sport Clive Efford said it was a “welcome step” but added that it “needs to cover the whole industry” and “must be completely independent of any influence from within the industry and be free to carry out effective monitoring”.

Efford could hardly greet such a positive move with disdain (no matter what his true feelings), however, he also made a good point about the measures needing to cover the whole industry.

Betfred and Bet365 were approached but it seemed that both were a bit of an afterthought.

“We have recently been made aware of the Senet Group,” a spokesperson told us when we asked why they had not signed up, “and we are in discussions with them. Here at Betfred responsible gambling will always remain at the heart of our business.”

The big three have a history of working together on such initiatives and it seems like Paddy Power has been invited to work with the big boys but perhaps Fred is not quite there yet.

It would have been even better if the initiative had emerged from the recently-formed Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG), which comprises the industry associations for bookmakers, iGaming operators, bingo clubs, arcades and casinos. However, the more people you involve the harder it is to get agreement. It is understandable if the bookies just wanted to get something out there and then sign up others later.

Because timing is everything here. Not only are there numerous reviews and reports due to be published over the coming weeks, the three major political parties are about to embark on conference season. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling, which has run rings around the bookies by creating a public outcry on FOBTs, will be at all three conferences. At last year’s Liberal Democrat conference they even had “ban the FOBTs” printed on the back of each delegate’s security lanyard.

For once, the Campaign was not given huge amounts of airtime last week. The media coverage of the Senet unveiling was pretty good for the bookmakers. There was barely a mention of “crack cocaine” machines bar a passing reference in The Guardian.

The national newspaper also falsely suggested that bet365 brand ambassador Ray Winstone has had a long-running series of TV ads offering a £200 sign-up bonus. Not true, according to peeved sources at 365. Winstone announces live odds but has never offered sign-up cash on TV. But at least bet365 got a free advert at the top of the Guardian article!

The Guardian’s mistake, however, highlights the need for cross-industry support. As gambling and political affairs consultant Steve Donoughue points out: “The biggest advertising irritant if you read the political commentary is not Paddy Power’s tactless attempts at schoolboy mischief but bet365’s Ray Winstone threatening tone. If the online guys aren’t playing, will anybody notice?”

Donoughue also pointed to the prevalence of online bingo free bet adverts on daytime television. And while the media and politicians are obsessed with FOBTs, the public is also getting increasingly weary of online gambling advertising saturating sports coverage. However, if bet365 is not offering free bets on television, there is little in the new standards for it to sign up to – unless it wants to devote some airtime to responsible gambling advertising.

That aside, it was refreshing to hear Gala Coral chief executive Carl Leaver on BBC Radio 4’s influential Today programme. I’m not sure of the process that got Leaver installed as point man but some observers reckon Gala Coral to be prime movers with these initiatives. It could just have been a process of elimination with Ladbrokes CEO Richard Glynn considered perhaps a little too much of a bruiser to deliver such a delicate message, Paddy’s Patrick Kennedy half way to the beach and James Henderson not long in the William Hill hot seat.

However, Leaver remained calm in the face of all the provocation that arch-provocateur John Humphrys, the presenter, could throw at him. He also got more airtime than Campaign for Fairer Gambling spokesperson Matt Zarb-Cousin.

“Free bets should not be allowed, FOBTs should not be allowed,” stormed Humphrys. “Why not ban the machines that encourage people who are prone to addiction to spend vast amounts of money in a very short period of time?”

It’s hard to think that many Radio 4 listeners (probably a fairly conservative well-to-do bunch) thought of Leaver as anything other than a down-to-earth businessman trying to earn a living – far from the evil, money-grabbing bookmaker exploiting the poor that the more excitable members of the press would have us believe is the norm in the chief executive’s office.

“We are going further than regulation requires us in response to public concern,” said Leaver.

Donoughue, while giving the industry an A for effort, is not the only one who believes it could have gone a bit further: “Is this Group enough to deflect some of the tidal wave of criticism that will happen in November when the Responsible Gambling Trust’s research into FOBTs is published and says nothing conclusive? The Senet Group are looking at advertising mainly, but the big guns are still trained on FOBTs and betting shop clustering.”

This is a start. If the industry is to disengage itself from the company of pay-day lenders in the public mind’s eye, then it might have to get nicer still.

sah@gamingintelligence.com

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