What are the odds of a fair press?
Have you ever wondered what our industry has to do to get a better reputation? No matter that we are all regulated. No matter that we provide entertainment for the vast majority of our customers. We still continue to get treated as the bad guys. Gambling is evil goes the belief. Therefore, the people who offer gambling as a product are evil too. That, however, is a ridiculous hypothesis despite being championed by the Daily Mail and various programmes on day time television in search of a cause. There was a recent discussion the other day on ‘The Wright Stuff’- apparently-looking at why gambling companies target vulnerable people with such sweeping statements as ‘there’s a reason high street bookies position their outlets in less well-off areas.’ Firstly, that assumes it is the high potential returns from all those people with no money rather than the low cost of doing business. Secondly, it assumes that bookies and betting businesses act as a unilaterally contagious virus seeking to infect as many people as they can. But gambling also includes people having a flutter on the Grand National, people having a fun night out at the Bingo or buying a ticket in the lottery.
They don’t ask how long those betting shops have been there; or whether they are providing jobs in areas where jobs are few and far between; or whether they are actually making any money or just breaking even. It is even possible, looking at it from a completely different perspective, that they are providing a possible meeting place for those who can’t find work that gets them out of the house. In particular, they don’t ask the same of other industries where the problems are greater and more widespread and where the preventative measures are at best, less stringent and, at worst, non-existent. Like alcohol. There are always pubs too in “less well-off areas” and many more than you’d find in middle class suburbs. They don’t comment either on their ubiquitous proximity to job centres. Why? Why is it OK for a pub but not for a bookie? In any event, pubs will throw you out if you don’t buy a drink. Bookies don’t throw you out if you don’t have a bet.
It’s also not necessarily either to do with how widespread the activity actually is. On the one hand, according to the most recent prevalence study, some 57.3% of the population gamble. One would have thought, therefore, that a pastime, as widespread and seemingly accepted as that, would have gained a veneer of approval and respectability as a consequence. The reality, however, is that the vast majority of that 57.3% only gamble on the National Lottery and Lottery Scratch cards, which is somehow deemed to be OK, despite the fact that, like the football pools before it, people are addicted to their numbers and buy them for every draw year in year out, and despite the fact that playing the lottery is incontrovertibly gambling and yet is available to be sold to 16 year olds (rather than 18) where proof of age requests are almost never made. Moreover, this form of gambling can avoid the 9pm watershed for advertising, which other, more responsible types of gambling companies must adhere to; and it doesn’t stop there. It is possible to self-exclude from land or remote with traditional gambling but the best you’ll get if you try and self-exclude from playing the lottery in your local supermarket is an utterly bewildered and bemused expression.
Moreover, when you also consider that 16-24 year olds are one of the most vulnerable age groups in terms of problem gaming and the fact that the most popular reason for gambling was cited as ‘the chance of winning big money’, it seems strange that the National Lottery is able to entice players by implying ‘it could be them’ who could win mouth-wateringly large sums of money while other regulated gambling operators cannot imply in any way that gambling leads to wealth and affluence.
So who decided that this type of gambling was OK and other types of gambling were not? Would you, for example, back a horse if its odds were 32 million to one? I rather doubt it. Moreover, it’s proven that the better off you are in the UK the less likely you are to buy a lottery ticket (huge jackpots not withstanding). Indeed, the National Lottery has often been accused of being a regressive tax and, again, there is little evidence of the Daily Mail or day time television fulminating at the wide availability of National Lottery outlets in less well-off-areas.
Once again, if you look at alcohol (in my view a wasted opportunity), it’s extraordinary what different standards our industry abides by and is judged against compared to alcohol. Many more people drink than gamble and many more people are addicted to alcohol and have alcohol related problems than is the case with gambling. Yet, how much more difficult is it for a recovering alcoholic to ban themselves from their local pub or supermarket than it is for someone with a gambling problem to ban themselves from a bookie, casino or gambling site? How many retailers display the contact details of Alcoholics Anonymous, or other support groups, next to the products they sell? And how many allow customers to set a limit to the amount they buy daily, weekly or monthly as the on-line gaming industry does? How many pubs, restaurants, off-licenses or supermarkets readily acknowledge the potentially destructive power of what they sell and voluntarily provide funding for research and support organisations as the on-line gambling industry does?
The irony is that the form of gambling which many people see as safe, acceptable, mainstream and non-threatening is also the one that appeals most to the youngest, is the most easily accessible to the vulnerable, has the fewest checks and balances and offers the highest prizes with the most alluring tag line.
Nor is the issue concerned with the size of spend. Seemingly, cheap gambling is OK which, conveniently lets in the National Lottery, Bingo and the occasional flutter on the Grand National, but expensive gambling such as FOTB’s, Black Jack, Roulette and Poker are not, even though you can, at least, play the last three free online. With alcohol, however, it is the other way round. Cheap drink is bad-hence the Government’s recent announcement of charging a minimum price per unit of alcohol – while expensive drinks such as, fine wines are not just considered OK, but rather a mark of refinement.
To a large extent, it is in the final analysis about the nature of the publicity it receives. Squirrels, for example, are vermin, but yet are broadly seen in a positive light. As someone once said, the only difference between a squirrel and a rat is that the squirrel has a good PR agency. So would a good PR agency be able to solve the issue of the gambling industry’s reputation? I think not. The issue with gambling is that demonstrably when someone loses, someone else must win and that winner is predominantly the house. The bookies actually did once hire a PR person to improve their perception but he quit after a while saying that trying to generate sympathy for the bookmakers was roughly akin to trying to organise a whip round for the Vestey family. Those who paint gambling black do so on a very selective (and subjective) basis and, in doing so, seek to occupy the high moral ground. Since, in some cases (less than 1% of the gambling audience, according to the Gambling Prevalence Survey) gambling does lead to addiction, the Daily Mails of this world will always have their day in the sun. And let’s not forget that addiction of any sort is a terrible thing and that addiction to gambling is one of the more terrible since, in essence, it is a psychological rather than a physical dependency. It breaks up families, leads to crime and dishonesty, loss of employment and so on. So I do not wish for a moment to trivialise the suffering that can be caused by gambling, but I do want to put it in perspective. Problem gaming does exist. However, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t or pushing the blame back to the player, the industry has taken a proactive approach to implement sets of controls, measures and initiatives both to prevent players from getting into difficulty and, if they do, to assist in the funding of organisations and charities to help them. Could it do more? Almost certainly it could, but it must also be acknowledged that gambling is a form of entertainment and fun for the vast majority of players.
The problem is that nothing exceeds like excess and we can’t suddenly start banning food because it makes some people obese or motoring because too many people die on the roads. All of life, to a certain extent, is a gamble. An enthusiasm for taking risks is present no more in the problem gamer than in the serial entrepreneur. They just have different outlets. As Rodney Dangerfield once said “when I joined Gambler’s Anonymous, they gave me 2-1 I wouldn’t make it”.