How and why the Advertising Standards Board decided that an advertisement intended to deter teenagers from sports betting did the exact opposite and encouraged gambling.

Introduction

In November 2013, the Advertising Standards Board (the Board) upheld a complaint that an advertisement intended to cause teenagers not to gamble had the opposite effect and promoted sports betting to young children.1

In October 2013, the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (the Foundation) launched their “KidBet” campaign, with the objective of raising awareness of the effect of exposing young people to gambling, in particular, sports betting. The campaign was targeted primarily at the parents of teenagers and the wider community. A television commercial (TVC) created as part of the campaign was aimed to highlight the Foundation’s concerns. However, the Board upheld a complaint that the TVC’s effect was the exact opposite of the Foundation’s intentions – that is, the TVC (being a parody of a sports betting advertisement) encouraged children to gamble.

The TVC

The TVC comprised an advertisement for a fictional betting agency called KidBet. One of the first remarks by the narrator (a 12 year old boy) to the camera is “KidBet is the first betting agency for kids, by kids”. The TVC also shows kids using an iPad to bet on sports while the narrator talks about placing bets on football. The TVC is set in a variety of child-friendly settings, for example, a school yard and a sporting field. The narrator also sits on top of a playhorse at a playground while proclaiming that Kidbet takes bets on “the sport of kings!”

The dialogue was accompanied by text on the screen, which included the disclaimer “Not a real betting agency” with statistics illustrating the Foundation’s concerns, for example, “kids may be exposed to over 2 hours of gambling advertising per week”.  

At the end of the TVC, an adult male voiceover warns that kids and betting should never go together. 

The Complaint

The Board received a complaint that the TVC breached section 2.6 of the Advertiser Code of Ethics (the Code). This section states:  

Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not depict material contrary to Prevailing Community Standards on health and safety.

The Complaint’s main argument was that parody would not be understood by young viewers, and it would have an effect which is opposite to the intention of the Foundation. It stated:  

This ad may work as a parody when viewed by adults. When being viewed by children, it has the exact opposite effect. My children do not understand the subtleties of sarcasm and parody.

While the Complaint acknowledged the Foundation’s objectives and the various techniques within the TVC used to achieve these objectives, they argued that these objectives had not been achieved, for example:

More so they will not listen to an adult male voice-over in the last few seconds of the ad after they have just had 20 odd seconds of kids talking to the camera and betting on iPads and endorsing gambling on sport.

The Foundation’s Response to the Complaint

In response, the Foundation outlined the intention of the TVC, namely, to “spark discussion about sports betting advertising and its effect on teenagers and encourage parents to start the conversation about gambling with their teenagers.” (Emphasis added.)  

The Foundation argued that the TVC had been given a PG rating, and that restrictions had been placed on the times when the TVC was to be broadcast. (The Foundation’s response to the Complaint indicates that that these restrictions were not complied with by the television networks.) In accordance with the rating given, it is clear that it was intended that the TVC was to be viewed by parents and teenagers together:

the creative concept was designed to be complex for children under 12 to comprehend in order to avoid them being tempted to gamble, and if they are exposed to the television commercial, it will be at a time when parents are likely to be with them and able to explain the creative and parity approach.

Moreover, teenagers viewing the television commercial are not likely to be attracted to the notion of gambling as the creative uses younger children so are not representative of, nor relatable to, their own peer group and therefore not encouraged to participate.

In summary, the Foundation was of the view that the casting of younger children (as opposed to teenagers) in the TVC meant that its target audience (that is, teenagers and their parents) would not be enticed to gamble, as teenagers would not identify, nor be enticed by, a younger cast.  

However, the Complaint expressed concerns to the contrary, that is, the reach of this TVC extends beyond teenagers and their parents, and would be viewed by younger children would relate to the young cast and could be enticed by the gambling activities in which the cast participate.  

The Determination

In its Determination dated 13 November 2013, the Board upheld the Complaint and found that the TVC breached section 2.6 of the Code.  

This Determination was made on the basis that children would find the TVC to be encouraging and condoning gambling.  

The Board acknowledged the written statements throughout the TVC, for example, “not a real betting agency” and the gambling statistics. However, “the visuals” of the TVC suggested strongly that gambling “is an activity which could and should be enjoyed by children and that this is the message that someone listening to the advertisement without watching and seeing the written statements would take away”.

Further, the Board considered that the lack of audio cues in the TVC indicating that underage gambling is wrong meant that children viewing the TVC were unlikely to understand that gambling can have negative consequences.  

In summary, the Board determined that the message intended to be portrayed by the TVC was not clear enough to be understood by its PG audience. While the Foundation in its responses referred on numerous times to “parental guidance” and the effect of this guidance in stemming any unintended messages arising from the TVC, the Board did not make reference to the effect of this guidance when assessing the likely effect of the TVC on children.

Appeal by the Foundation

The Foundation has responded by indicating that it strongly disagrees with the Determination. It is seeking an independent review of the Determination and does not consider the matter to be closed.

In its response, the Foundation argues that both the visual and audio elements of the TVC should be taken into account by the Board when conducting its review. That is, the Board should have placed more weight on the text displayed throughout the TVC (for example, the gambling statistics as well as the disclaimer “not a real gambling agency”).  

Additionally, the Foundation rejects the Board’s conclusions that, while the end of the TVC made it clear that kids and betting do not go together, there is not sufficient repetition of this message throughout the advertisement to make the point clear. The Foundation argues that this conclusion, if correct, would set a “bizarre” precedent if it were applied to every TVC. In particular, the Foundation refers to “decades of hard-hitting Transport Access Commission advertising involving drink driving, drug driving, speeding, etc all of which had no messages other than the “Drink Drive Bloody Idiot” style and frame” (at the end of the TVC).  

Conclusion

We await the outcome of the independent review of the Determination with interest. However, irrespective of the outcome of the independent review, this Determination illustrates when  a disconnect exists between the advertiser’s objectives and the effect of an advertisement. It is often a disconnect of this nature which may place the advertiser in breach of advertising regulation.  

Additionally, any advertiser seeking to broadcast a TVC with a PG rating should place greater reliance on the way a child is likely to interpret the TVC, rather than the way which a child, guided by their parent(s), is likely to interpret the TVC.

This is a real dilemma as it presents great difficulty for any organisation that wishes to conduct a promotional campaign designed to warn children or teenagers of the harm associated with gambling.