Campaigners Call For Stop to 'Sneaky' UK Gambling Ads on Social Media

New report states that much more needs to be done to reduce the amount of gambling content marketing that under 18s and younger demographics see.

Mar 26, 2024 • 12:09 ET • 4 min read
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New research from Bristol University has revealed a significant rise in the number of “sneaky” gambling promotions targeting young people, according to The Guardian

Blurring the lines between traditional advertising and cultural references, the promotional material in question is particularly difficult to distinguish as advertising - leaving younger demographics more vulnerable to the lure of gambling. 

Great Britain’s Gambling Act of 2005 led to a swift deregulation of the market, giving more freedom to casinos and sports betting companies looking to advertise. What followed was a sharp uptick in the number of young people gambling in the country, and a rise in associated problem gambling. 

Recent figures suggest that more 16-34 year olds gamble than any other age group in the UK. Shockingly, 55,000 children aged 15 and under are known to have a gambling addiction. 

Content marketing could be key to recent rise in problem gambling 

Bristol University researchers carried out an online survey, which was completed by 210 11-17 year olds, 222 18-24 year olds, and 221 25-78 year olds. The study focused primarily on the appeal of gambling advertising to different demographics, and the emotional response such content elicited. 

Researchers found that the youngest demographic surveyed was particularly vulnerable to the sway of gambling advertisements. And that’s largely down to how such advertising is being presented to them. 

Gambling companies are increasingly using content marketing to advertise themselves to such demographics, leading to a significant rise in the volume of advertising that isn’t clearly identifiable as such. 

Content marketing can be difficult to recognize as advertising, even for adults. Consider the fact that these companies appear to be targeting younger demographics on social media, and you can see where the problem lies. 

Recent findings by Rossi and Nairn (2021) argue that “individuals, particularly children and young adults lacking advertising recognition skills, face considerable challenges discerning the commercial nature of such content marketing.” 

The study found a marked difference in how well people could identify content marketing as advertising, amongst different age demographics. Young people were only able to correctly classify 43% of content marketing as advertising. Adults correctly identified 65%.  

“All ages were quite bad at recognizing it as advertising, but children and young people were much less able to distinguish it," said Raffaello Rossi, lecturer in marketing at the University of Bristol. "It’s a sneaky way to get people engaged and create a positive perception towards gambling.”

Current rules around advertising clearly stipulate that marketing communications “must be obviously identifiable as such.” Rossi argues that the social media posts analyzed in this study are in breach of this rule. 

The rise of content marketing on X (formerly Twitter) and other social media sites has meant an increase in the number of children unwittingly following betting companies on social media. The concern here is that these children, when they turn 18 and can legally gamble, are far more likely to sign up with such companies at a young age. 

The volume of content appearing on social media sites is also of concern, as this too could be fueling the rise in problem gambling amongst young people. Previous research showed that the top five betting operators in the UK posted no less than 19,100 posts on X over an eight-month period. That’s 80 posts every day. 

Are we doing enough to protect young social media users? 

There are measures in place to restrict the content that underage users can see, but these are easily evaded by youngsters. 

While terms and conditions require X users to be at least 13 years old, Ofcom research has shown that a third of children aged between eight and 17 with a social media profile have an adult user age, after signing up with a false date of birth. 

Do current restrictions go far enough to protect impressionable young users who may struggle to identify promotional content as advertising? Bristol University researchers argue that they don’t, and have called for stricter rules for betting companies. 

The report states that much more needs to be done to reduce the amount of gambling content marketing that under 18s and younger demographics see. There are also calls for clear labelling on promotional material, to help users identify it as advertising. 

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, vice-chair of the all party parliamentary group for gambling-related harm supports the suggestions.

“The growth of so-called content marketing is deeply concerning as gambling companies seem to be circumnavigating advertising codes of practice," he said. “If voluntary codes are clearly not working, steps must be taken to ban content marketing in its entirety to ensure children, who spend significant amounts of time online, are being protected.”

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