The United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is at it again, issuing overzealous rulings against online gambling firms. The latest victim is GalaSpins.com, which got into hot water over a recent television ad. The ASA found, in its Sept. 12 decision, that the TV spot implies that there's skill involved in online casino play.
The video, which aired May 5, 2018, begins by showing a man playing casino games on a tablet. He then starts to rapidly spin a plate on its side as a voiceover commences, saying:
Ah, the tell-tale signs of a Gala Spins fan. A whirly spin of fun and games, just like the new Britain’s Got Talent Slingo game. Try it now and see if you’ve got the talent. Galaspins.com - now that’s Spincredible.
As the commercial closes, people surrounding the main character applaud his efforts, and one of them takes a photo. The “Britain's Got Talent” title referenced in the ad is a type of Slingo: a game that combines elements traditionally found in slots and bingo.
The claim against GalaSpins was that the message broadcast used the word “talent” thus implying that gambling was a skill-based pastime rather than one governed by chance. This would be a violation of BCAP Code 17.3.1:
GalaSpins defended itself by stating that the use of the word “talent” applied to the name of the game being promoted, “Britain's Got Talent,” and also the dexterity required to spin physical plates as the man in the ad was shown doing. The company argued that the tone of the broadcast was lighthearted, and it clearly wasn't meant to persuade viewers that online casino results were primarily determined by the skill of the customer.
The ASA wasn't buying it. They said that the context of the ad was to invite people to gamble online. In that context, use of the word “talent” suggests that players can use their skill to improve their chances of winning. Thus, the spot was in violation of the relevant section of the BCAP Code. The ASA directed Galaspins.com to stop showing the ad in its current form.
We find the decision-making process of the ASA to be quite ridiculous in this instance. Anybody who's above the age of 18 and has any money to blow on internet gaming has to be intelligent enough to know that you cannot influence the results of random number generators by applying your own skill.
We're left baffled by the question of whom the authorities are attempting to safeguard with this verdict. Is it the clinically insane? Fans of the “Britain's Got Talent” show who think that there must be just as much talent involved in online slots as there is in the television program? Plate-spinning aficionados who are misled into thinking that their experience rotating pieces of dinnerware carries over to being able to adjust the virtual reels of a slot machine in their favor?
This entire case illustrates one of the dangers of installing busybody nanny-staters in positions of power. They'll almost always find new outlets for expressing that power rather than just retiring into the background once their main objectives have been met. We've already seen the ASA and the U.K. Gambling Commission clean up the worst aspects of online gambling over the past few years, and now they appear to be proceeding to “infractions” of lesser and lesser importance.
Just look at the ASA's belief that attractive slot machine graphics promote underage gambling, a stance that, if widely followed, would lead to the creation of boring, uninspired casino titles. Or consider the case of PokerStars, which had an ad banned because the ASA felt that it encouraged reckless bluffing alone as the key to poker success.
Gala Interactive, a Gibraltar-registered corporation that owns GalaSpins, Gala Bingo, and several other online gaming destinations, has come under the scrutiny of the United Kingdom's regulatory watchdogs before.
In June 2017, the company was chastised by the ASA for the fine print in a TV ad, which was found too difficult for viewers to read, potentially misleading them as to the terms and conditions of a promotional offer. Then in October 2017, Gala got into hot water over text seen on one of its affiliate's sites that told the story of a man who escaped depression and financial trouble by winning a large jackpot playing bingo. Gala was found to be ultimately responsible, even though the affiliate had created the article by itself and without any instructions from Gala, because the gambling enterprise was the final beneficiary of the marketing material.
The Advertising Standards Authority is basically there to tell companies what advertising is unacceptable and then to warn them not to run such messages in the future. It generally doesn't levy fines or order other punitive measures. But the United Kingdom Gambling Commission (UKGC) does issue fines, revoke licenses, and decree other penalties for firms that run afoul of its rules.
In April 2016, the Gambling Commission found that Gala Coral Group was lax in its anti-problem gambling protections, allowing a gambling addict to wager hundreds of thousands of pounds online, and making matters worse, the money he was playing with had actually been stolen from someone else. Gala had to forfeit £876,664 ($1.1 million) to settle this action. Unfortunately, the company failed to take adequate measures to correct its social responsibility failures, and Gala was hit with a £2.5 million ($3.3 million) penalty in November 2017 after a couple of at-risk customers dropped a total of more than £1 million ($1.3 million) on internet gaming.
While the institution of a licensed regime for real money online gaming in the United Kingdom has undoubtedly brought a wealth of benefits, like more honest marketing activities and a safer environment for users, it also has its disadvantages. Having to follow the dictates not only of the ASA and UKGC but also the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the strictures of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) puts a heavy burden on businesses. For instance, the CMA has interfered in the recent The Stars Group/SkyBetting merger, mandating that both companies must maintain separate operations for the time being.
Now, major firms like The Stars Group and SkyBet have armies of lawyers and consultants to help them navigate the complex regulatory landscape albeit with significant expenses involved. Smaller entities may lack these resources and could be priced entirely out of the market – that is, unless they elect to operate in the United Kingdom without a license.
This may seem like asking for trouble, but the truth is that the powers-that-be have a difficult time getting rid of gray-market operators that base their organizations in jurisdictions that Her Majesty's government can't touch, like Panama and Costa Rica. Most of the offshore U.S.A. poker sites, for example, that happily ignore American restrictions on internet gaming also welcome British patrons to their virtual doors. As long as regulatory bodies continue to create a stifling climate for licensed betting firms, there will always be a place for unlicensed gaming.