Government would be right to tackle Ireland’s gambling culture

Figures that show doubling in rate of those with gambling addiction cannot be dismissed

For a small percentage of people, gambling is anyting but fun. Photograph:Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

For a small percentage of people, gambling is anyting but fun. Photograph:Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

 

No one can claim special predictive powers arguing that gambling will be the next hot advertising potato, especially after the British government’s announcement of a review into banning gambling adverts on daytime TV and social media. It’s a betting cert that concerns over the impact of such advertising on young people are set to become more public here too, the sort of cert in fact which quickly gets your betting account closed.

Because just like the alcohol industry, in fact any industry catering to our more louche behavioural impulses, the gambling game’s carefully packaged frivolity is a flimsy fig-leaf that fails to cover up a ruthless focus on the bottom-line outcome of its digitally transformed ‘just a bit of fun’ sales pitch.

It’s a similar pitch to the late-night glass of wine which radically altered drinking habits; where’s the harm? With gambling, it’s the fiver or tenner that makes West Brom v Middlesborough a lot more interesting, and from the comfort of the couch too, with just a couple of swipes across a screen; what could be easier?

And just as with a tipple, for the majority there is no harm, same as it has always been; just as it is the same that a minority find those flurries of fun lurching out of control. And while it is valid to point out suspicions about how if it isn’t one poison which preys on an addictive personality it will be another, what’s important is that the gambling industry now is anything but the same.

Reports of a doubling in the rate of people presenting with severe gambling problems, increasing to three-times for those aged 18-24, can hardly be dismissed as merely coincidental with the surge in popularity of online gambling and smart-phone apps.

Unconscious desires

It has never been easier to gamble and never easier for gambling firms to target you. Advertising has become incessant, attracting people into the ‘just a bit of fun’ culture with ease of access, special offers and the sort of manipulative imagery that is the very nature of the ad game, nagging at unconscious desires for popularity, belonging, even just plain old vindication.

Young people are, by definition, more vulnerable to this stuff, and also more likely to be targeted across the various media platforms. Young people, after all, are tomorrow’s customer-base. And it is in the corporate interest to convince as much of that base as possible about betting on sport being as natural as watching it.

Second Captains

The British government is examining fixed odds betting terminals and there has been speculation that this proposal to stop gambling advertising in breaks during live sporting events before the 9pm watershed is simply part of a wider negotiating process.

But sooner or later the nature of gambling advertising is an issue that will have to be addressed everywhere and, given Ireland’s gambling culture, perhaps more urgently here than most other countries.

It’s no surprise that even the idea of such a ban has already galvanised the gambling and media industries into unanimity about how bad a move it would be. Such a ban would be costly, probably result in quite a few business plans having to be torn up, and the potential sponsorship implications for a sport like racing are obvious.

Inevitably, too, the idea of another ban will provoke cries of ‘nannydom’ just as it does when it comes to alcohol, and used to with cigarettes. Financial implications for sports sponsorship will be fretted over, there will be cries of tokenism, accompanied by reminders that life’s a risk and watching ads for washing powder never forced anyone into coming over all squeaky clean.

And once again the assumption behind it all will be that such advertising is harmless, just a droning half-time soundtrack of perpetual giveaway offers, best odds guaranteed and Ray Winstone having it: bullshit basically, an aesthetic irritant or a bit of a ‘fnarr-fnarr’ giggle about smelling the royal box, but nothing serious.

Except if advertising is harmless a lot of very serious people in very serious positions are wasting serious billions worldwide just for the hell of it.

Downward spiral

Gambling can be great fun. Many people relish the idea of backing their judgment. Some of us are even in the business of pedalling supposed expertise, although anyone prepared to seriously invest on the judgment of someone flogging an opinion rather than just profitably backing it themselves is on a rapid downward spiral. But that’s fun for you, there’s no accounting for taste.

However, for a small percentage of people, and those close to them, it’s anything but fun. You can get all Thatcherite about that and blithely dismiss them as the free-market casualties of an industry which is a lucrative contributor to government coffers. But such ‘I’m alright, Jack’ smugness doesn’t alter the very real consequences of addiction.

Those afflicted talk about it in behavioural terms with little or nothing about it to do with actual winning or losing. It’s delusional to assume then that advertising to young people in particular, the first generation to know nothing else but a digital environment, can be harmless in terms of their attitudes and behaviour towards gambling.

We’re into new territory here and there’s no knowing precisely what the impact will be on young people bombarded by manipulative images designed to make betting seem like the most natural and enjoyable route to easy pickings.

And of course it’s anything but. The technology that helps pull in clients also allows the betting corporations to precisely monitor their success and failures, which means those rare punters able to come out ahead usually find their accounts closed. More than ever before, the reality really is that the bookie never loses.

Maybe that should be the slogan that gets plastered on-screen.

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