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Selling hope: A brief look at the advertising of online sports betting

(Please note that this article was co-written with Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez).

Marketing strategies are essential in a market environment such as online sports betting wherein product differentiation is minimal and price inelasticity robust. Business insiders widely accept that product innovation is instantly replicated across competitors, which are permanently seeking to generate, so far unfruitfully, a disruptive competitive edge. In a context where the number of licensed bookmakers is constantly growing, advertising plays a big part in luring customers who cannot tell the difference between companies. Advertising and marketing spend on sports betting has increased exponentially over the last five years in Europe and that is mirrored on the exposure to betting commercial messages of sports fans.

For instance, a 2014 report published by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation estimated that viewers of the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League – the two most followed sport codes in Australia – are exposed to 10 to 15 minutes of gambling advertisements per game. Similarly, Dr. Sophie Lindsay and colleagues in a 2013 issue of BMC Public Health looked further into the environmental impact of gambling advertising in sport events. They calculated that in three rugby league matches the public had been exposed to ‘322 episodes’ of betting marketing – for example, considering an episode every time an electronic banner advertised a gambling site – which is somewhat paradoxical given in-play betting is illegal in Australia (as of mid-2016).

Online_Sports_Betting_Australia

One of the marketing tricks is the use of the psychological bias known as the ‘representativeness heuristic’ (coined by Dr. Amos Tversky and Dr. Daniel Kahneman). Imagine the following two betting propositions concerning a soccer game: (a) FC Barcelona will lose the next match against the bottom team in the league (an extremely unlikely event, say 0.01 probability); (b) FC Barcelona will lose the next match against the bottom team in the league but (i.e. AND) Leo Messi will score at least one goal (this one an extremely likely event, for the sake of the argument, 0.99 probability). Mathematically speaking, proposition B can never be a better choice than proposition A, since P(A)=0.01 as opposed to P(B)=0.01×0.99= 0.0099. However, bookmakers understand that Messi scoring a goal is a highly representative event that can be effortlessly be retrieved from memory, transferring the representativeness to the whole betting proposition. In addition, it is plausible that representative heuristics work in conjunction with wishful thinking, overestimating the likelihood of an event based on one’s own preferences, as anecdotal evidence from betting advertisements concerning national teams participating in international competitions appear to suggest.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, I and my colleagues (Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez and Dr. Ana Estevez) discussed two of most utilized master narratives in online betting promotions are discussed, namely skill-enhancing narratives – in which there is an overemphasis on the capacities and knowledge of the bettor – and, at the other end of the spectrum, risk-lowering narratives – which underemphasise the risks involved in betting and typically overestimate the probability of winning.

Skill-enhancing narratives: In a 2016 issue of iGaming Business magazine, Vahe Baloulian, CEO of the betting software company BetConstruct, declared that new features were there to give customers ‘a chance to feel more in control by engaging more often and making decisions’ with ‘feel’ and ‘control’ being the keywords here. The ‘feel’ component refers to a perceived non-factual sensation that lies at the heart of the advertising endeavour. The perception of control over the betting activity has been found to be a common attribute of gambling narratives in Swedish research by Dr. Per Binde, in which elements of skill have been exaggerated, as well as in televised commercials from Canada (in a 2008 paper by John McMullan and Delthia Miller in the Journal of Gambling Issues), wherein betting has been associated with the imagery of media sport communication, skills, and long-meditated strategies, while luck was downplayed.

Many betting features newly added to online platforms are said by commercials to enhance the control of the user over the outcome of the event bet upon, including more gamified experiences (where passive bettors supposedly become players), immersive betting experiences, and fantasy sports (where the player actively recruits a team). In these examples, the betting experience demands a higher involvement from the bettor, arguably resulting in a psychological transference between the active role of a bettor executing actions and the actual influence a bettor’s actions may have on the outcome of an external event. In essence, betting advertising contributes to the myth of gambling as a sport, an activity that is healthy, harmless, and that can be mastered with practice and talent.

Among the most used selling points that enhance the self-efficacy and control of the sports bettor are the narratives of masculinity. Attributes such as loyalty to the team, being a real man, and being brave enough to prove sporting knowledge have been implicit in some sports betting messages, including stereotyped gender depictions and sexualized imagery. According to recent research by Dr. Nerilee Hing and colleagues (in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction), the prototype sports bettor is male, young, tech-savvy, and professional, which aligns with the target audience of betting advertising. This reinforces the idea of male providers that sublimates in gambling their manly instincts for aggression, competition, and combat, as was observed in the behaviour of horserace bettors as identified in early studies.

Risk-lowering advertising: In parallel to the skill-enhancing strategies, advertising diminishes the harmful consequences of excessive betting by representing it as a risk-free activity. The combined narrative would be that of a safe environment where intelligent people possess the tools to succeed. In an attempt to lower the perceived risk inherently embedded in any betting activity, three major messages have been emphasized by advertisers: (i) betting is a perfectly normal activity; (ii) errors in betting predictions are not fatal; and (iii) betting is a social activity.

Advertising has been frequently proposed as a significant mechanism of gambling normalisation including new social media channels (see Dr. Sally Gainsbury and colleagues 2016 research in the Journal of Gambling Studies). The portrayal of gambling attitudes and behaviours in media representations as well as in real life environments promotes the idea of gambling as an intrinsic form of entertainment. This is true for all forms of gambling but sports betting presents some singular intensifiers. Unlike any other gambling form, sport instils in betting its health and sanitization attributes. Attributes such as fair competition, success through talent and perseverance, equal opportunities and big rewards, respect for nature, green and healthy habits are transmitted to betting behaviour. Celebrities deepen that connection as they have been proven to reduce the perceived risk by the public of the products they endorse. Sportspeople tell the story of young, talented risk-takers who challenged the odds but emerged successful in the end, arguably a perfect incarnation of the bettor’s own aspirational narrative.

Another marketing technique broadly employed by betting operators concerns the provision of risk-free bets. Advertisements typically offer welcome bonuses for new customers, free bonuses for loyal clientele, and money-back exceptions in multiple complex accumulated bets. All of these free offers pose a dual threat. On the one hand, the so-called free money requires bettors to engage in further betting in order to reclaim their benefits (leading to money losses in the process). On the other hand, even if it is a bona fide free bonus, problem gamblers might conceptualise betting as a riskless activity that entails no responsibilities even when done excessively.

A third main risk-lowering technique used in commercials is the representation of betting as a social form of entertainment to be conducted alongside other people. Solitary gambling, like solitary drinking, has been thought to be a determinant and/or consequence of problem gambling. However, some studies have raised the alarm about the misconception that gambling, when done in group, cannot be problematic (see the recent work of Emily Deans and her colleagues in ‘Further reading’ below). In fact, peer facilitation has been identified as a fundamental contributing factor to impulse betting, with excessive betting being more plausible when sport matches are viewed in the company of others (as shown by Mattew Lamont and colleagues in a 2016 qualitative study in Sport Management Review). Sport is a cultural product, socially consumed (watched, practiced, discussed, and bet upon). The social stigma attached to gambling habits might be shifting towards its naturalisation, a long-term process that advertising cannot carry out on its own but can certainly facilitate.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Binde, P. (2009). ‘You could become a millionaire’: Truth, deception, and imagination in gambling advertising. In: Kingma S (ed.), Global Gambling: Cultural Perspectives on Gambling Organizations, (pp. 171-194). London: Routledge.

Deans, E.G., Thomas, S.L,. Derevensky, J. & Daube, M. (2017) The influence of marketing on the sports betting attitudes and consumption behaviours of young men: implications for harm reduction and prevention strategies. Harm Reduction Journal, 14(5). doi:10.1186/s12954-017-0131-8.

Deans, E.G., Thomas, S.L,. Daube, M., Derevensky, J., et al. (2016) Creating symbolic cultures of consumption: an analysis of the content of sports wagering advertisements in Australia. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 208.

Deans, E.G., Thomas, S.L,. Daube, M. & Derevensky J (2016) The role of peer influences on the normalisation of sports wagering: a qualitative study of Australian men. Addiction Research & Theory. doi: 10.1080/16066359.2016.1205042.

Gainsbury, S.M., Delfabbro, P., King, D.L., et al. (2016) An exploratory study of gambling operators’ use of social media and the latent messages conveyed. Journal of Gambling Studies, 32, 125–141.

Gordon, R. & Chapman, M. (2014). Brand community and sports betting in Australia. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

Guerrero-Solé, F., Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Online gambling advertising and the Third-Person Effect: A pilot study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 7(2), 15-30.

Hing, N. (2014). Sports betting and advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre.

Hing, N., Lamont, M., Vitartas, P., et al. (2015). Sports-embedded gambling promotions: A study of exposure, sports betting intention and problem gambling amongst adults. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13(1), 115–135.

Lamont, M., Hing, N. & Vitartas, P. (2016). Affective response to gambling promotions during televised sport: A qualitative analysis. Sport Management Review, 19(3), 319-331.

Lindsay, S., Thomas, S., Lewis, S., et al. (2013) Eat, drink and gamble: marketing messages about ‘risky’ products in an Australian major sporting series. BMC Public Health 13(1), 719.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estevez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41, 256-272.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. Estevez, A., Jimenez-Murcia, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Alcohol drinking and low nutritional value food eating behaviour of sports bettors in gambling adverts. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H.. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

McMullan, J.L. & Miller, D. (2008). All in! The commercial advertising of offshore gambling on television. Journal of Gambling Issues, 22, 230-251.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1983) Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review, 90(4), 293–315.

It takes all sports: A brief look at sport-related betting

Over the past year I have been carrying out research with my Spanish colleague – Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez – into problematic sports betting and sports betting advertising which has already produced a number of papers (see ‘Further reading’ below) and with many more to come. One of the issues we have faced in contextualising our work is that there is no such concept as sport-related problem gambling in prevalence surveys because problem gambling is assessed on the totality of gambling experiences rather than a single activity. For instance, in the three British Gambling Prevalence Surveys (BGPSs) conducted since 1999, sport-related gambling is subsumed within a number of different gambling forms: ‘football pools and fixed odds coupons’, ‘private betting’, and ‘other events with a bookmaker’. The 2010 BGPS (which I co-authored) included ‘sports betting’ as a category, along with ‘football pools’ (no coupons), ‘private betting’, ‘spread betting’ (which can include both sports or financial trading). In addition, the 2010 BGPS added a new category under online gambling activities to include ‘any online betting’. More recently, the Health Survey for England also introduced a new category: ‘gambling on sports events (not online)’.

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Despite these limitations, some evidence can be inferred from gambling activity by gambling type. In 2014, Heather Wardle and her colleagues combined the gambling data from the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey. They reported that among adult males aged 16 years and over during a 12-month period, 5% participated in offline football pools, 8% engaged in online betting (although no indication was made about whether this only involved sport), and 8% engaged in sports events (not online). The categories were not mutually exclusive so an overlapping of respondents across categories was very likely. A similar rate was found in South Australia in a 2013 report the Social Research Centre with those betting on sports over the past year accounting for 6.1% of the adult population, an increase from the 4.2% reported in 2005.

In Spain, the Spanish Gambling Commission (Direccion General de Ordenacion del Juego [DGOJ] reported that 1.5% of the adult (male and female) population had gambled online on sports in 2015. This is a significantly lower proportion compared with the British data, although the methodological variations cannot be underestimated. Spanish data also shows that, among those who have gambled online on a single gambling type only, betting on sports is the more prevalent form with up to 66% of those adults.

In France, the data on the topic only focuses on those who gamble rather than examining the general population of gamblers and non-gamblers. Among online gamblers, Dr. Jean-Michel Costes and colleagues reported in a 2011 issue of the journal Tendances that 35.1% had bet on sports during the last 12 months. In another French study by Costes and colleagues published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies, sports betting represented 16.4% of the gambling cohort, although again, the representativeness of sports betting behaviour among the general gambling and non-gambling population could not be determined.

Due to the aforementioned shortcomings in the definition of sport-related gambling, there is only fragmented empirical evidence concerning the impact of sports-related problem gambling behaviour. For instance, in 2014, Dr. Nerilee Hing noted that clinical reports indicate that treatment seeking for sports-related problem gambling had grown in Australia. In British Columbia (Canada), a 2014 survey by Malatests & Associates for the Ministry of Finance reported that 23.6% of at-risk or problem gamblers had gambled on sports either offline or online. A smaller proportion (16.2%) was found in the Spanish population screened in the national gambling DGOJ survey, except this subgroup was entirely composed of online bettors.

In a 2011 study published in International Gambling Studies with patients from a pathological gambling unit within a community hospital in Barcelona, Dr. Susana Jiménez-Murcia and her colleagues found that among those who had developed the disorder gambling online only (as opposed to those who gamble both online/offline or offline only), just over half (50.8%) were sport bettors. Those who gambled online only (on any activity) and those that only gambled online on sports events represented a small minority of the total number of problem gamblers. Overall, there is relatively little research on this sub-group of gamblers therefore I and others will be monitoring the evolution of this trend as the online gambling population grows.

(Note: This blog was co-written with input from Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Costes, J-M, Kairouz, S., Eroukmanoff, V., et al. (2016) Gambling patterns and problems of gamblers on licensed and unlicensed sites in France. Journal of Gambling Studies 32(1), 79–91.

Costes, J., Pousset, M., Eroukmanoff, V., et al. (2010). Gambling prevalence and practices in France in 2010. Tendances, 77, 1–8.

DGOJ (2016a) Análisis del perfil del jugador online. Madrid: Ministerio de Hacienda y Administraciones Públicas.

DGOJ (2016b) Estudio sobre prevalencia, comportamiento y características de los usuarios de juegos de azar en España 2015. Madrid: Ministerio de Hacienda y Administraciones Públicas.

Hing, N. (2014) Sports betting and advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre.

Jiménez-Murcia S, Stinchfield R, Fernández-Aranda F, et al. (2011) Are online pathological gamblers different from non-online pathological gamblers on demographics, gambling problem severity, psychopathology and personality characteristics? International Gambling Studies 11(3), 325–337.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estevez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review and Economics, in press.

Malatests & Associates Ltd (2014). 2014 British Columbia Problem Gambling Prevalence Study. Victoria, Canada: Gaming policy and enforcement branch, Ministry of Finance.

The Social Research Centre (2013) Gambling prevalence in South Australia. Adelaide, Australia: Office for problem gambling. Available from: http://phys.org/news/2012-03-lung-doctors-respiratory-diseases-worsen.html.

Wardle, H., Moody. A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M.D., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011).  British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

Wardle H, Seabury C, Ahmed H, et al. (2014) Gambling behaviour in England & Scotland. Findings from the health survey for England 2012 and Scottish health survey 2012. London: NatCen Social Research.

Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: The Stationery Office.