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Is the marketing of gambling unacceptable?

March 5, 2013
Image of Foxy Bingo

Foxy Bingo just one example. Is it right to promote gambling as a happy lifestyle choice?

Gambling is a business which promotes the possibility of success as being more likely than the probability of failure. Now liberalised in the UK and supported by politicians advocating the freedom to “have a flutter”, gambling has advanced onto our television screens, tablets and phones as a lifestyle choice worthy of envy. Is this acceptable?

The pursuit of excellence, corrupted?

Let us start with the man (or the woman; the consequence is the same). From the moment of his birth, it is suggested that a man’s duty to himself and to his peers is to be excellent. As perfection is impossible, even – as we know – among those most godly, we can see that a man’s duty is instead to be as excellent as possible, in the circumstances. This is, of course, difficult.

For marketers, it presents a problem of a conflict of ethics versus profession. It is the duty, by dint of his (or her) profession, for the marketer to strip away man’s excellence as a deer does the bark of a tree. Temptation leads the mind into forests new so marketing aims to lead us into new experiences, new products, new services. Marketing is the discipline of commercial temptation.

As a consequence, the man who through life maintains as much of his excellence as is possible is a stronger man than he who by distraction weakens. Consequently, therefore, it can be argued that the weaker man is the marketer’s target and that marketing in such a way may be described as dishonourable.  

This is a harsh judgment. However, we can also observe that honourable marketing is that which improves the excellence of the man by stripping away as little as possible of his own soul. We as marketers achieve honour by the bettering of the lives of our companies’ prospective customers.

Yet in human kind, ugliness of spirit is revealed when the good in man is removed. Arguably, marketing which as its consequence reveals an inner ugliness rather than an outer perfection can be seen to be corrupting.

So we must challenge ourselves as marketers as to whether we prefer an inner morality or a blind following of professional duty. This is a difficult contest to manage.

The archer’s paradox, the marketer’s paradox

We know that when an arrow is loosed, it flicks from side to side in paradox of its apparent forward momentum. Marketing is just like the archer’s paradox – placing forces in the way of momentum; in this case the momentum of man to live life honourably and true to himself.

But primacy of moral compass is not necessarily the motivation of men. For marketers, it is well known that a driving force in life is to be better than one’s peers. As Toxophilus says to Philologus in Roger Ascham’s treatise on archery of 1545: “When a man striveth to be better than another, he will gladly use that thing, though it be never so painful, wherein he would excel.”

We can see therefore that in the satisfaction of that need, marketing can be justified. To offer a better drill, a stronger file, a smoother plane, a marketer can make the carpenter better at his bench. Excellence drives excellence and progress is made.

But in the promotion of gambling, as also in pay day loans or drinking, it is debatable as to the higher state achieved as a consequence of commercial transaction. In gambling, the conceit lies in the likelihood – however unlikely – of achieving wealth beyond the price tendered in the bet. Marketing promotes a consumer reward which is statistically unlikely. 

Should any marketer, irrespective of his agnosticism, promote gambling as the desirable outcome of his activities? We are aware today of the not insignificant issue of the problem gambler; when gambling laws are more liberal, a consequence of marketing is an increase of human suffering.

Marketing and the problem gambler

Image of online gambling advert

Sex sells. Glamour is often used to sell gambling.

To help assuage their guilt in this matter, gambling companies advise “problem gamblers” to seek advice from recognised charities.

What exactly is a problem gambler? Someone who loses their home through addiction? Someone who is prepared to cheat on – or steal from – their partner or colleagues? Someone who is deluded, such as those who believe the conceit that in “playing” on their laptops in the loneliness of their bedrooms they are dressed in a white tuxedo in some Monaco casino? Is it the case that a problem gambler believes they are wealthier than they are? Or will be, one day?

Often the reality of the problem gambler is a tired bedsit, a rotting terraced house in a collapsed industrial town, the boredom of a housewife with little to do, the alcoholic with untreatable addictive tendencies.  Occasionally it will be some wealthy lord, as in history, who fritters away his inheritance on the unreliability of a horse’s legs. But rarely. Gambling appears disproportionately to attract the poor in pursuit of freedom, the troubled in the pursuit of happiness. And footballers.

But if these stereotypes are typical, and the suffering so great, is it appropriate for gambling to promote itself using the notion of the exhilarating experience of winning rather the much more prevalent experience of losing? Is it right to promote small lists of winners, rather than significantly larger lists of people whose losses paid for the winners’ winnings? Is it more truthful to offer signing-on “bonuses” to new players rather than promote the inevitable withdrawals from the “players'” bank accounts which form the real business model? Alas, as in all marketing, smiling girls are more endearing than desperate men, sex sells more than sobriety.

But those who suffer at the hands of addiction are the dark shadows that lurk behind the curtain; so famously described by Dickens as Ignorance and Want. As Toxophilus says, “And if there were any so desperate a person that would begin his hell in earth, I trow he should not find hell more like hell itself, than the life of those men in which daily haunt and use such ungracious games.”

It is an unpleasant truth that in times of recession, spending on gambling – like claims on PPI – increases. At the time of greatest vulnerability, gambling appeals as offering an easy way out. And marketers are tempting us. Yet the truth of the model is that gambling companies cannot remain profitable by rewarding desire to all participants. Profit and winnings are the fruits of loss.

Gambling industry statistics – a problem gambler in every hundred

The result is that, according to Gamble Aware between 0.7% and 0.9% of gamblers are defined as problem gamblers: nearly one person per 100, 7-9 people in 1000, or 7-9,000 in every million. The NHS estimates that there may be 250,000 problem gamblers in the UK.

As we have seen, it is not entirely clear what a problem gambler is. But we can be sure that it is not someone who enjoys a flutter of a few pounts every few months on a horse. And it is clear that every “problem” is a tragedy, with more than one player as partners, family members and relatives all have to live with the consequences.

To offset negative publicity, marketers advise PR to position companies – whether gambling company, arms supplier or a tobacco producer – as responsible. Under the banner of corporate and social responsibility (CSR), companies advocate positions to offset the potential harm of their activities. In the case of the gambling industry it does this by paying £5m of its profits to “help fund gambling-related research, education and treatment” and claiming that the problem gambling figures are lower than in the USA or Australia.

Yet it is a condition that gambling begets gambling. The more a man loses, the more he seeks to redress his loss and, as Toxophilus observed, “Now if a simple man happen once in his life to win of such players, then they will entreat him to keep company whilst he hath lost all again“.

It can be appreciated that it cannot be in the interest of a gambling organisation to encourage the winning gambler to walk away. In order to generate repeat business it must encourage addiction in some form, and this addiction must as a consequence of the business model produce more individual loss than it does for the company. Personal loss drives corporate earnings.

Inherent truth

So the question for marketers is whether it is acceptable to portray gambling as an industry based on the successful performance of the few rather than the unsuccessful performance of the many? Is this truthful marketing?

We have spoken before on A Brand Day Out about the need for inherent, demonstrable truth in marketing in order for consumers to make an informed decision. If marketing cannot be honest in how it promotes gambling then can a marketer justifiably work on gambling assignments?

Image of Online Gambling website

Offers abound – online gambling sites encourage participation.

If we accept that it is the duty of man to be excellent, can the marketing of a product which leads to the misfortune of the majority who take part in it be deemed an honourable and excellent professional pursuit, even if “problem” gamblers make up a small proportion of the customer base? Not forgetting that “small” is 250,000 people, enough to fill Manchester United’s ground 3 times over with people to spare.

Toxophilus guides us in our estimation of this question: “if a man consider how many ways and how many things he loseth thereby; for first he loseth his goods, he loseth his time, he loseth quickness of wit, and all good lust to other things; he loseth honest company, he loseth his good name and estimation, and at last, if he leave it not, loseth God and heaven and all; and, instead of these things, winneth at length either hanging or hell“.

Ascham wrote that in 1545. If our job as marketers is potentially to cause through gambling the avoidable unhappiness of others – even if it be the unhappiness of just one man or woman –  then we ask questions of ourselves. Given how hard it is to earn £1000, would our mothers be proud if, through our art, we encourage others to lose it in an instant?

Note: This post is something I have been wanting to write for some time as marketing of gambling has proliferated in recent years. It is written from the point of view of compassion, not first-hand experience of this corrosive issue; nor do I intend any personal criticism of those who work in the industry.

If you know of any problem gamblers, or are affected by the misery of gambling addiction, the following sites may be useful:

Gamblers Anonymous


NHS Gambling Addiction Help Page

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