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Coming a part of the themes: The psychology of familiarity in gambling

Have you seen slot machines featuring Spiderman? Or the ones based on the Monopoly board game? Or the slots that have pictures of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video game? Most gaming operators will appreciate that all of these images have a strong brand presence, and that it is one of the main reasons for themed games. However, a more basic marketing tactic is being used here – the psychology of familiarity. This is used throughout the gaming industry but is most common on slot machines, online games, and scratchcards. For instance, Camelot’s scratchcards in the UK have featured film tie-ins (e.g., James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars), and popular games (e.g., Connect Four).

But this wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1980s I did some research on the names that gaming designers and operators gave their slot machines. One of the more interesting findings I reported in one of my academic papers was that over 50% of all machine names that I came across in amusement arcades had some reference to money on them (such as ‘Cashpoint’, ‘Cashline’, ‘Action Bank’, Piggy Bank’, ‘Money Belt’ etc.). Psychologically, all of these machine names gave the impression that this was where a player could get money from – not where they would lose it! Other categories of machine names included those with some reference to skill on them (‘Fruitskill’, ‘Skillchance’) suggesting that machine playing was a skillful activity and that gamblers could perhaps beat the machine. Other machines had what I called “acoustically attractive” names (Nifty Fifty, Naughty But Nice) or puns (Reel Fun, Reel Money). Since making these observations, I have always been interested in the subtle techniques that the gaming industry uses in getting the punter to play on their products. The psychology of gambling – or rather the psychology of gambling marketing – has come a long way in the last decade.

As I’ve already said, one of the techniques that the gaming industry uses (whether they realise it or not) is the psychology of familiarity. Gaming operators and marketers have realised that one weapon in their marketing armory is to design products which appear familiar before a player has ever even played on them – something that can partly be achieved through the name or theme of the slot machine. The examples I gave above showed that the names of slot machines appear to be important in impression formation. It is highly unlikely that the names of slot machines have any influence on gambling behaviour per se. However, when tied in with recent research on the psychology of familiarity, the names of machines do seem to be critically important – particularly in terms of gambling acquisition (that is, getting people to gamble in the first place).

Nowadays, slot machines are often named after a famous person (the Elvis Presley machines appear very popular in one of my local casinos), place, event, video game, board game, television show or film. Not only is this something that is familiar to the gambler but may also be something that the potential gamblers might like or affiliate themselves with (such as James Bond). This is different from a simple naming effect in that the machine’s theme may encompass the whole play of the machine, including its features, the sound effects (e.g., the theme tune to popular television programmes like Coronation Street or Eastenders), and light/colour effects. By using well-known and common themes, gamblers may be more likely to spend time and money playing them.

Some of the most popular UK slot machines are those that feature The Simpsons. There are many possible reasons why a gambler might be more likely to play on a Simpsons’ machine. The Simpsons have mass appeal and popularity across all ages and across gender. The machines are celebrity-endorsed and players may place trust in a ‘quality’ brand like The Simpsons. Gamblers may also hope that knowledge of the characters will help in the playing of the game. On a basic level, it might simply be that the game play of The Simpsons is more exciting, and that the sound effects and features are novel, cute and/or more humorous than other machines. There are many cases similar to this one where it could be speculated that the slot machine becomes so much more inducing because it represents something that is familiar and/or special to the gambler.

Familiarity is a very important psychological aspect of why themed slot machines have been more prominent over the last decade. Familiar themes have the capacity to induce a ‘psycho-structural interaction’ between the gambler and the gambling activity. This is where the gambler’s own psychology interacts with the machine’s structural characteristics and produces different consequences for each person depending upon what the feature means to them personally. If the themes are increasingly familiar, a gambler might be more likely to persevere with the complexities of a machine. Gamblers may find it more enjoyable because they can easily interact with recognizable images they experience. Therefore, the use of familiar themes may have a very persuasive effect, leading to an increase in the number of people using them, and the money they spend. Whilst there are many other aspects that influence an individual’s decision to gamble, the possible persuasive nature of the themes should not be underestimated.

As you may have already gathered, there is a strong overlap between the psychology of familiarity, branding, and the psychology of persuasion. In very simple terms, a gambler must be exposed to the product and be aware of its presence before they can even make the decision to gamble. This is relatively easy to achieve given the ubiquity of slot machines and the fact that current machines will use any number of techniques to grab a potential player’s attention. These include television or film theme tunes, bright flashing lights, and/or pictures or voices of celebrities. Once a gambler’s attention has been gained, the product must be likeable and familiar enough for them to think about gambling and wanting to interact with the machine further. Immediately familiar images and sounds are likely to lead to a much quicker decision to gamble. All which goes to show – the gaming industry knows what it is doing!

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty.Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dunbar, D. (1997). The role of familiarity in fruit machine gambling. Society for the Study of Gambling Newsletter, 29, 15-20.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? (pp. 277-292).New York: Prometheus Books.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Video game structural characteristics: A new psychological taxonomy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 90-106.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.211-243). New York: Elsevier.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D., Chappell, D. & Davies, M.N.O. (2004). The structural characteristics of video games: A psycho-structural analysis. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 1-10.

Blame it on the fame? The role of celebrity endorsement in gambling advertising

Have any of you reading this ever visited an online poker site because of a celebrity endorsement? Would the presence of Ben Affleck or James Woods make you more likely to play poker? Commercial gambling has only relatively recently got in on the celebrity endorsement bandwagon mainly because gambling advertising has always been very restricted. When a poker company uses a celebrity endorser, they are signing up an image that is itself a gamble. At the very least, gaming companies should get what they pay for but it can all go horribly wrong. When a purple-bearded Billy Connolly was used to promote the National Lottery in 2002/2003, sales decreased. The adverts had high recall by the public but were hated by a large proportion of the British public who found Connolly highly irritating.

This is all goes to show that any gaming company wanting to use celebrity endorsement as part of its marketing drive has to carefully evaluate a celebrity’s image and reputation. Steps need to be taken to make sure the celebrity’s image and reputation matches the needs of the company. Sales can take a tumble especially if the celebrity used does something that compromises the company’s image. For instance, Vic Reeves drink-driving conviction wasn’t very good for the car insurance company he was promoting! However, in most situations, the relationship between the company and the celebrity will be mutually beneficial. The company receives all of the perks associated with the celebrity such as publicity, positive connotation, recognition, respect and trust. The celebrity – at the very least – benefits financially.

The advertising industry claims that brand recognition, recall and awareness are the most important outcomes of successful marketing campaigns. This, they believe, will result in greater sales and increased revenue. However, as with the Billy Connolly example above, this isn’t always the case. Celebrity endorsement is perhaps even more important in online commercial activities like playing Internet poker where identity, trust and reliability equate to potential punters. As a consequence, many online commercial enterprises appear to opt for short-term, high impact celebrity endorsement and ‘buzz marketing’ rather than investing for the long term. These types of marketing tend to create an instant image and reputation but may not necessarily be good for the company’s longevity. To be market leaders amid the competition, online gaming operators will need to couple strategic marketing with solid brand management.

Interestingly, a survey carried out by Marketing UK asked marketers from a sample of the top 1000 British companies which techniques they thought were the most successful in increasing sales and at building long-term relationships with customers. It found that celebrity endorsements ranked last, beneath things like loyalty schemes, sales promotions, and general display advertising. However, it doesn’t make sense to isolate celebrity endorsements, because they are just one of many marketing elements that are used in a successful campaign. What’s more, if marketers didn’t believe celebrities help in generating long-term sales and profits, they wouldn’t keep paying the large fees they command.

While the jury is out on whether celebrity endorsement is a sales winner, one question that has yet to be answered through research is, what type of gambler does a celebrity endorsement impress and/or influence in their decision play? Is it the novices, long-standing players, or both? Maybe different types of celebrities appeal to different clientele. For me, the most interesting development of the celebrity endorsement culture is how the big poker tournament winners have now become celebrities in their own right. For instance, the star after-dinner speaker at an academic gambling conference I was at in Lake Tahoe was World Series of Poker veteran Howard Lederer. This type of celebrity endorsement may be more appealing to players. The fact that someone has become a celebrity through skill and talent in an activity that gamblers are already positively predisposed towards suggests they will want to have more of a psychological association with these celebrities than those the celebrities who just happen to play poker as a hobby. Judging by the front covers of magazines like Inside Poker, the editors clearly believe that it is the big poker winners that sell the magazine rather than Hollywood A-listers or scantily dressed women.

Celebrity endorsements also tap into the psychology of ‘intrinsic association’. This is the degree to which the gambling activity is positively associated with other interests, people and/or attractions. Intrinsic association also taps into the psychology of familiarity and help explain why so may UK slot machines feature themes relating to television shows, films, popular board games, video games or celebrities. It makes punters feel they know something about the product before they have even played it.

Gaming companies have to ask themselves how much they are willing to gamble on celebrity endorsement in trying to carve out a niche in the market. Companies have got to be clear that they are targeting the right product with the right celebrity with the right message. It can be a long hard slog to shape an image or reputation but it can take just a few seconds of celebrity madness to destroy it.

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

Further reading

Binde, P. (2007). Selling dreams – causing nightmares? On gambling advertising and problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 167-191.

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. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Celebrity endorsement and online gambling: Ten golden rules. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, June/July, p.64.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? (pp. 277-292). New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

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.