A voluntary “whistle to whistle” ban on pre-watershed television gambling adverts during live sports has been agreed by the UK’s gambling companies (13 December 2018). The Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG) will amend its advertising code in the new year and the ban will come into force in the summer of 2019.

Self-regulation of gambling adverts, however, is nothing new, although it was not a great success last time it was tried by the UK bookmakers.

In the late 1970s the bookmakers had set up an advertising committee in conjunction with the newspapers that screened bookmakers’ press advertising. As is so often the case, the idea was well intentioned.  The betting sector feared that a bookmaker could advertise over-generous and unsustainable odds that would entice punters but the bookmaker would simply scoop up the cash and default on winning bets.  That would cause the entire industry to fall into disrepute.

A laudable idea, except that it was the bookmakers who reviewed the adverts of other competing bookmakers. It was clearly open to abuse and it was Cyril Stein from Ladbrokes who had an influence on what adverts were allowed.

For three years Wilf Gilbert & Co had run a special offer of “a quarter the odds a place” over the Cheltenham Festival. On the fourth year, in 1981, Wilf Gilbert’s advert was pulled by the advertising committee.  Geoffrey Gilbert, the company chairman, was outraged and took his case to Sally Oppenheim MP who was the Minister of State for Consumer Affairs in the Department of Trade during Mrs Thatcher’s Government.

Sally Oppenheim described the advertising committee as the worst restriction of trade that she had ever seen.  The committee was immediately abandoned and Wilf Gilbert’s adverts were run.

Nearly four decades later and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright welcomed the proposed TV ban on betting advertising during sports broadcasts.  The question remains as to whether the ban is legal and whether such a ban will solidify the position of those that already have substantial market share, preventing newcomers from getting a foot on the ladder.

It is fully understandable why a voluntary ban might be suggested. The sector wishes to head-off an outright ban on all gambling advertising, similar to that introduced in Italy.

Written by Warwick Bartlett