The United Kingdom's advertising oversight body, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), has ordered PokerStars to stop showing one of its televisions ads. After reviewing a complaint, the authorities declared that the video spot in question violated the rules related to gambling advertisements that are contained in the BCAP code, which all advertisers must follow. The offending ad aired on Oct. 26, 2017, and the ASA ruling was handed down April 4, 2018.
The setting of the ad was a poker home game with the protagonist holding 83o. A voice-over narration gave advice to the “hero” of the hand:
Here you are, the moment when bluffing is the only way to win, you’re freaking out kiddo, but think about all those times you bluffed yourself. Like the pull-up bar waiting for you to get back in-shape, that book you’re definitely going to read, your parents never ever had sex. Use that talent because if you can bluff yourself, you can bluff anyone.
The final shot of the video showed the player pushing all of his chips into the middle, and then the narrator continued: “Pokerstars, you’re already a great poker player.”
You can watch the PokerStars ad below although it seems the wording has changed a bit from that mentioned in the ASA judgment:
Two issues were raised under the advertising rules in effect regarding this commercial ad from PokerStars:
The poker company claimed that its ad didn't encourage irresponsible gambling behaviour, and it wasn't even clear if the chips being used actually represented money. PokerStars stated that this advert was “very different in content, tone and style to an ad which suggested consumers could win lots of money.”
On the charge of promoting reckless behaviour, 'Stars contended that the type of bluffing shown was an integral skill in poker and was performed after making careful calculations. The poker room argued that ”bluffing was not a reckless act in itself.”
Unfortunately, the decision went against PokerStars on both counts. The Agency found that viewers could be confused by the comparison made between “bluffing” in non-poker activities and bluffing at the table: “…the ad would be interpreted by viewers to mean that they could make large winnings by making big ‘all in’ bluffs based solely on their experience of bluffing in real life without any experience of playing poker.” The council concluded that the video “portrayed gambling behaviour in the context of recklessness and in a manner that could lead to financial harm.”
The ASA directed PokerStars to stop showing the offending ad in its current form and to make sure that future ads don't depict “socially irresponsible” gambling or take place “in the context of recklessness.”
We feel that the ASA missed the mark with this ruling. If anyone watching the ad were intellectually sophisticated enough to understand the comparison between “bluffing” in real life and bluffing in a poker game, we believe that such an individual would automatically have the brainpower to realize that recklessly bluffing at inopportune times would not be the key to poker success.
On a more abstract level, one of the lines of reasoning used by the ASA is that novices might see the ad and then think that by following the actions suggested, they could instantly become big winners. This might indeed be true of the advert we're discussing at least for the more … um … special … members of the audience. However, a moment's thought will show that this is also the case with virtually every advertisement showing a game of poker or any other gambling for that matter.
We don't even find out whether or not the bluff featured in the ad was successful! So merely the possibility of the bluff working and the likelihood that the chips represent real money are enough for the ad to be deemed to be promoting irresponsible gambling. This logic would mean that all footage showing chips being used in any gambling game could be interpreted as tricking newcomers into thinking winning is a breeze.
We suppose the only gambling adverts permissible under this interpretation would be those wherein people lose their cash. Yet, we can't imagine any gaming firm wanting to produce videos highlighting this possibility. It would be like an automobile manufacturer filming a car crash and then broadcasting it to attempt to drum up some business. It would make no sense.
Would this ad be more appropriate under the ASA's guidelines? Nah, it would most likely run afoul of alcohol advertising rules.
We're not the only ones who feel that the ASA has overreached its legitimate remit. The Association of Players, Casinos, and Webmasters (APCW) is a group that pushes for honesty and transparency in the gambling industry. You can watch below to see what this association thinks of the recent ASA PokerStars decision:
The Advertising Standards Agency has previously taken gambling firms to task over supposedly controversial or harmful media content. In Aug. 2017, Paddy Power ran an image of boxer Floyd Mayweather with the headline “ALWAYS BET ON BLACK,” which was held to be possibly racially offensive. Earlier the same year, 888 got into hot water because of an “advertorial” telling the story of a man who escaped his financial difficulties by winning big at 888Casino although the company claimed that the troublesome ad had been produced by a third-party affiliate without 888's knowledge.
Over the years, many other prominent gaming organizations have come under the scrutiny of the ASA, including William Hill, Coral, Ladbrokes, and bwin. The recent complaint against PokerStars' wasn't the firm's first interaction with the agency. In August 2016, its daily fantasy sports division, BetStars, had a complaint against it upheld relating to difficult-to-find terms and conditions on a free bet offer. Fortunately, the only enforcement actions typically taken by the ASA are orders to stop showing the offending material and directives to be more careful in the future.
Gambling and advertising are two separate fields over which governments wish to exert some control in many jurisdictions around the world. When the two industries combine, restrictive regulations are usually developed.
For instance, Australia recently banned daytime gambling advertising during live sporting events. In the United States, rules governing gambling advertising are usually determined at a state-by-state level although there have been periodic attempts by the federal authorities to stamp out advertising for what it sees as illegal gambling. Thus, the recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency in the United Kingdom is not out of the ordinary when compared to what other countries do to regulate gambling adverts.