Sticking with the status quo - a risky bet for the gambling industry

Gambling companies are facing an increasingly cynical atmosphere in the UK. Lawmakers, the general public, and wider stakeholders are questioning the integrity of the industry's business model and challenging the societal licence to operate in its current format. What can communicators within the sector do to proactively build trust in the industry, and how can this improve its reputation?

The author(s)

  • Alex Russell Ipsos Corporate Reputation
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Gambling - placing something of value on the uncertain, with the intention to win goods or money is nothing new; dice have been found dating back to 3000 BC. An increasingly conspicuous aspect of this enduring industry, however, is the growing dissatisfaction the sector fosters amongst the public, regulators and lawmakers.

Gambling losing favourability

Our most recent Ipsos Key Influencer Tracking survey validates this claim, with gambling ranking bottom for favourability amongst MPs across a selection of industries including; oil & gas, banking and rail - and our latest Global Advisor survey shows that almost 30% of the UK public disagree that gambling is morally acceptable, even when in moderation.

With 70% of MPs viewing the sector unfavourably, negative sentiment dwarfs the 8% who are favourable. Such an imbalance of opinion within the House of Commons makes clear the reputational risks the sector faces, and emboldens the charities and individuals lobbying for much greater regulation of an industry which is viewed by many as dangerous. What’s more, the proportion of MPs who view gambling favourably has dropped from 11% in 2015, down to the 8% we see today, so support is dwindling.

Chart shows: favourability towards industry sectors

 

With its licence to operate looking increasingly precarious, it is essential that the gambling industry recognise and navigate the reputational hazards set before it. The key issue here is the addictive nature of gambling, and the perception that the industry does little to mitigate for it. It goes without saying that many people enjoy gambling in a moderate way; losing only what they can afford, winning sometimes, and keeping it insulated from wider effects on lifestyle.

But with more than 2 million people in the UK classified as either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction, the government and the sector’s lead organisations are not doing enough to tackle the problem according to the industry regulator, the ‘Gambling Commission’.

Parliamentary questions on advertising are tabled almost weekly, media headlines scream about irresponsible marketing practices and prominent politicians, from across the political divide, are calling for drastic measures to reduce children's exposure. Ian Angus – Programme director, Gambling Commission

Reputational hazards

There are two recurring issues that need to be addressed, the first of which is advertising. The gambling commission has spoken out about the risk the sector faces in view of its advertising practices, and regularly calls for responsible advertising to be at the heart of its business. The introduction of ‘When the fun stops, stop’ campaign, goes some way to acknowledging this, but is hard to reconcile with the bombardment of deals and products that are advertised side by side with this message of moderation.

Secondly is the industry’s relationship with sport.

There is scrutiny on a seemingly symbiotic relationship between many of the country’s top teams and the individual betting firms. In the 2017-18 football season, nearly 60% of all football clubs in the top two divisions were sponsored by gambling companies. Just last week, such associations have hit the headlines again with Wayne Rooney’s transfer to Derby County being questioned around the moral issues it raises, given Derby are sponsored by 32Red (a gambling company), and Rooney will wear the number 32 shirt – a decision Derby chairman Mel Morris acknowledged as commercially driven that “could be very smart business”.

The alarming part of this, are the foundations it sets up for the ‘next-generation’ of gamblers. ‘Normalising’ gambling through a medium as popular as sport is “worrying" because “increasingly betting is seen as part and parcel of following and supporting one’s favourite sport or team” - says Professor Jim Orford of Gambling Watch UK.

The industry has started to address the link with sport having voluntarily agreed to a ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban in December 2018 which will stop adverts - and this is to be commended. Yet sponsorship and advertising around the pitch will still remain during matches, so this does little to placate the worry of normalising gambling for impressionable young minds.

So how can the industry change its reputation and overcome persistent doubts about its commitment to tackling the challenges it faces?

The gradual introduction of measures such as the self-enforced ban on live game advertisin can only do so much if a notable lack of trust is apparent. As such, the industry must work on building trust with the public and policy makers. For instance, when the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals was reduced to £2 last year by the government, the gambling industry (with a few exceptions) roundly criticised the move arguing it would lead to job losses and was paternalist. This is despite gambling profits almost doubling over the last decade, and coupled with news of huge executive salaries, which left many asking whether profits and pay are the real motivation behind criticising the government’s plans, rather than protecting employees and a sense of individual liberty.

Of course, profit will always remain an essential part of a functioning business, but that it should be the sole driver when dealing with a product that can cause so much harm, is not in line with modern expectations of corporations.

If the gambling industry were to take similar but voluntary positions (in the same way it’s acted on live advertising), perceptions of and trust in the sector may increase as a result of the view that it takes its impact on society seriously, and is authentic and honest when communicating such messaging.

With the high levels of unfavourable sentiment amongst policy makers and regulators, reputational hazards will persist and will need to be addressed if more punitive license to operate constraints are to be avoided.

The author(s)

  • Alex Russell Ipsos Corporate Reputation