Recent research has shown that a new type of gambling advertising is being used online and on social media in an attempt to win over viewers. Unlike television, these online ads can be more personalized, interactive, and may be more difficult to distinguish from other content.
For example, gambling companies will use methods like polling the winning team in a soccer game to get users to engage with them. While the effect of these ads is relatively unknown, early research suggests that they are likely to increase consumer engagement with the game.
Our latest research has highlighted the recent shift to online advertising. We collected and analyzed 25 peer-reviewed studies that were published between 2015 and 2020 to establish the advertising strategies of gambling companies. These studies covered the content and marketing strategies of more than 300 stand-alone online advertisements, 500 gambling web pages and 10,000 social media posts.
Research has indicated that the first significant change in the online sphere involves the game industry moving away from “general marketing” where the audience is all presented with the same promotion (as happens on television). Instead, gambling companies are turning to a new kind of gambling advertising, using information about each person to deliver personalized ads to an online audience.
When individuals surf the web, their browsing, purchase, and profile data is collected and transmitted to third-party advertising networks. This data is then stored via browser cookies that allow these networks to serve personalized advertisements to users. This means that through the same website, one user could come across an online bingo advertisement while another user could be presented with an online sports betting advertisement, depending on the content of their cookies (saved user data blocks in the web browser).
It’s no secret that other industries are capitalizing on personalized, user-friendly advertising content. However, the gaming industry has dramatically increased its spending on this type of online advertising in recent years. Previous research has suggested that personalized ads are more effective than general marketing because they are seen as more relevant, trustworthy, and attention-demanding.
However, the use of demographic and behavioral data online to market potentially addictive products such as gambling raises ethical concerns. There is some evidence for a dose-response effect, which means that the more you are exposed to something, the more likely you are to be affected by it. Exposure to more gambling ads could mean increased engagement in gambling. With many websites today choosing to host personalized rather than general ad space, there is a higher likelihood of this dose-response effect.
The second notable change in gambling advertising indicated by our research concerns the use of interactive elements to generate user engagement. Traditional means of advertising have relied on information provided to the public. In contrast, a growing number of gambling companies are incorporating direct links to their websites in their social media posts.
Consumers still have a choice of whether or not to engage with these ads, but the gap between the consumer and the advertised game product is now often “one click away”. Research indicates that reducing “consumer effort” results in increased consumption relative to whether consumers see or hear advertisements on TV or radio.
Likewise, our research has indicated that social media users like and share promotional gambling posts. This was found by analyzing the content of social media posts from gambling companies and seeing that they encourage users to take these actions. This tactic means that such posts could end up on the social networks of people who wouldn’t normally see them, such as children. Some restrictions in place may block clearly inappropriate content, but many posts from gambling companies do not meet these criteria (such as memes and surveys that are used to promote brand awareness).
In the UK, around 55,000 children between the ages of 11 and 16 are classified as ‘problem gamblers’. This issue is all the more concerning as our research shows the use of cartoons, memes and humor in online gambling advertising and this can be particularly appealing to children and young people.
Social media influencers
Our research also shows the ambiguous and seemingly innocuous nature of some online gambling advertisements. There is evidence that gambling companies are now employing social media affiliates to endorse gambling products through their own channels. Affiliates are paid third parties who direct customers to a specific brand or product. Influencers fall into this category and can be effective in reaching audiences due to their high number of followers. Although influencer promotion is under-studied in a gaming context, the risks may be similar to those shown by research related to fast food promotion. This evidence suggests that kids will eat more fast food when promoted by a recognizable social media influencer.
The 2005 Gaming Act relaxed the rules on gambling and related advertising. However, the provisions of this law were mainly developed in relation to traditional media. A regulatory overhaul is already underway in an effort to minimize some of the damage caused by new styles of gambling advertising. New and complex forms of advertising are likely to contribute to the overall normalization of gaming and attract new people to the activity. It is therefore clear that the reformed Gambling Act must take into account these new advertising techniques for online gambling and how to protect young and vulnerable audiences from the harmful effects of this new style of advertising.