The highs of the prize: Are instant-win products a form of gambling?

A nine-year old boy walks into a shop and buys a packet of potato chips. An eight-year old girl walks into the same shop and buys a chocolate bar. Nothing particularly unusual except this particular packet of potato chips poses the question “Is there a spicy £100,000 inside?” in big letters on the front of the packet with the added rider “1000’s of real £5 notes to be won!” The bar of chocolate offers “£1 million in cash prizes – win instantly. Look inside to see if your a winner!!”. The boy opens up the bag of crisps but it contains nothing but crisps. He is very disappointed. The little girl opens up the chocolate bar and sees the all to familiar phrase “Sorry. You haven’t won this time but keep trying. Remember there’s £1 million in cash prizes to be won”. She too is very disappointed. Both of them decide to buy the product again to see if their luck will change. It doesn’t. This time a different chocolate bar says “Sorry this is not a winning bar. Better luck next time!” The most they are likely to win is another packet of crisps or some more chocolates.

This scenario describes a typical instant win product (whereby a consumer buys a particular product with the chance of instantly winning something else of financial value). This type of instant-win marketing has been around for some time and is not particularly new but it is the younger generation that is being targeted. In a different environment, it could be argued that these two children are “chasing” their losses in the same way a gambler chases theirs. All over the world, this type of marketing is becoming more prevalent with big multi-national companies also employing its use to increase sales (e.g., MacDonalds).

In gambling situations after losing money, gamblers often gamble again straight away or return another day in order to get even. This is commonly referred to as “chasing” losses. Chasing is symptomatic of problem gambling and is often characterized by unrealistic optimism on the gambler’s part. All bets are made in an effort to recoup their losses. The result is that instead of “cutting their losses” gamblers get deeper into debt pre-occupying themselves with gambling, determined that a big win will repay their loans and solve all their problems. Although not on this scale, the scenario outlined above appears to be a chasing-like experience akin to that found in gambling. To children, this type of behaviour appears to be a gambling-type experience and is similar to other gambling pre-cursors that I have highlighted in some of my papers such as the playing of marbles, card flipping, and sports card playing. For instance, in sports card playing, it is not uncommon for adolescents to keep buying packs of cards to get their favorite baseball or football star. Products like crisps and chocolate are popular and appeal not only to the young but to adults too. However, the fact that such promotions are often coupled with the appearance of teenage idols (e.g., famous pop groups or top soccer sporting heroes) suggests that it is younger people that are being aimed for.

Manufacturers of instant-win products claim that people buy their products because customers want them. They further claim that the appeal of a promotion is secondary to the appeal of the product. This may well be true with most people but instant-win promotions obviously increase sales otherwise so many companies would not resort to it in the first place. It would appear that most people have no problem on moral (or other) grounds with companies who use this type of promotion. However, there are those (such as those who work in the area of youth gambling) who wonder whether this type of promotion exploits the vulnerable in some way (i.e., children and adolescents). The question to ask is whether young children and adolescents are actually engaging in a form of gambling by buying these types of products.

Gambling is normally defined as the staking of money (or something of financial value) on the uncertain outcome of a future event. Technically, instant-win promotions are not a form of gambling. This is because (by law) manufacturers are required to state that “no purchase is necessary”. This whole practice it is little more than a lottery except that in very small letters at the bottom of the packet there is the added phrase “No purchase necessary – see back for details”. However, very few people would know this unless they bought the product in the first place, and secondly, the likelihood is that a vast majority will not do this anyway – particularly children and adolescents.

The small print usually reads “No purchase necessary. Should you wish to enter this promotion without purchasing a promotional pack, please send your name and address clearly printed on a plain piece of paper. If you are under 18, please ask a parent or guardian to sign your entry. An independently supervised draw will be made on your behalf, and should you be a winner, a prize will be sent to you within 28 days”. I have tried writing to companies to ascertain how many people utilize this route but (to date) I have been unsuccessful in gaining any further information. It is highly likely that very few people write to the companies concerned. There is a high likelihood that the companies in question have the empirical evidence but unfortunately it is not in the public domain. If it is assumed that the number of people who actually write to the companies for their names to be put into an independently supervised draw is very low, it can be argued that to all intents and purposes that people who buy such products are engaged in a form of gambling.

Since the introduction of the UK National Lottery and instant scratchcards in the mid-1990s, a “something-for-nothing” culture appears to have developed where people want to win big prizes on lots of different things. Children themselves are growing up in an environment where gambling is endemic. Having examined a variety of instant-win promotions, I am in little doubt that they should be viewed as gambling pre-cursors in that they are gambling-like experiences without being a form of gambling with which anyone can identify. It is unlikely that great numbers of children will develop a problem with this activity, but there is the potential concern that a small minority will. Research has consistently shown that the earlier that a child starts to gamble the more likely they are to develop a gambling problem.

Evidence that instant-win products are problematic to young children is mostly anecdotal. For instance, a number of years ago, I appeared on a UK daytime television programme with a mother and her two children (aged nine and ten years of age) who literally spent all their disposable income on instant-win promotions. These two children had spent hundreds of pounds of their pocket money in the hope of winning the elusive prizes offered but never won more than another bag of potato chips. The mother claimed they had “the gambling bug” and was “terrified they will have problems when they grow up”. She claimed she had done her utmost to stop them using their pocket money in this way but as soon as her back was turned they were off to the local corner shop to buy instant-win products. This wasn’t just restricted to products they enjoyed anyway. For instance, when they went to the supermarket to shop the children just fill up the shopping trolley with anything that has an instant-win promotion including tins of cat food – even though they didn’t have a cat!

Harsh critics of instant-win promotions might advocate a complete banning of these types of marketing endeavors. However, this is impractical if not somewhat over the top. What is more, there is no empirical evidence (to date) that there is a problem. However, this does not mean that such practices should not be monitored. Instant-win marketing appears to be on the increase and it may be that young children are particularly vulnerable to this type of promotion if anecdotal case study accounts are anything to go by.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London : Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Instant-win promotions: Part of the gambling environment? Education and Health, 15, 62-63.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Instant-win products and prize draws: Are these forms of gambling? Journal of Gambling Issues, 9. Located at:

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3(2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Responsible marketing and advertising of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 50.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2009). Adolescent gambling-like experiences: Are they a cause for concern? Education and Health, 27, 27-30.

Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The prevention and treatment of problem gambling in adolescence. In T.P. Gullotta & G. Adams (Eds). Handbook of Adolescent Behavioral Problems: Evidence-based Approaches to Prevention and Treatment (Second Edition) (pp. 539-558). New York: Kluwer.

Zangeneh, M., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2008). The marketing of gambling. In Zangeneh, M., Blaszczynski, A., and Turner, N. (Eds.), In The Pursuit Of Winning (pp. 135-153). New York: Springer.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 20, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Advertising, Case Studies, Compulsion, Lottery, Marketing, Popular Culture, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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