• A growing number of gambling companies have engaged in responsible gambling initiatives, as critics have argued that the industry has so far done too little to prevent harmful betting.
  • Our media analysis suggests that while corporate PR is focused on spreading the word about responsible gambling campaigns, betting companies can actually utilise PR as part of their strategy to change consumer behaviour.
  • We also suggest that gambling brands should go beyond general educational campaigns and utilise social media to communicate direct and tailored content.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

Betting operators have recently come under increasing levels of scrutiny for their treatment of addicted gamblers after a period of rapid blossoming in the late 2000s and 2010s.

Many countries have started taking measures. For example, the UK, home to the world’s largest regulated online betting market, set out long-awaited plans to crack down on problem gambling as it aims to bring regulations up to date with a rise in betting online and on smartphones. Meanwhile, Germany introduced limits on how much customers can deposit, while the Netherlands put in place a new licensing regime for operators.

In addition, campaigners for gambling addicts have argued that the industry has so far done too little to prevent harmful betting and that only the threat of regulation has spurred action from businesses.

That’s why a growing number of industry players have started focusing their comms efforts on responsible gambling, also known as safer gambling – a set of social responsibility initiatives to ensure the integrity and fairness of their operations and to promote awareness of the harms associated with gambling, such as gambling addiction.

To see how companies can become better at their responsible gambling efforts, we analysed 4,366 English-language articles published in the last 21 months. Here are a few tips that suggested themselves:

1. Use PR to spread messages that change behaviour rather than merely promoting campaigns

We found that the media debate was dominated by companies’ efforts to showcase their responsible gambling efforts, which made Corporate campaigns the largest topic by share of voice:

Much of companies’ PR efforts were focused on spreading the word about their direct marketing campaigns, which most often included online advertising and TV spots informing the viewers of the dangers of uncontrolled gambling. This goes to show that most gambling companies treat PR merely as a promotional tool for their brands rather than as part of their strategy to change consumer behaviour.

However, companies could use PR beyond publicising their marketing initiatives and tap into its potential for behavioural change – which in turn would result in a reputation boost. A good place to start would be for companies to contribute to media articles on responsible gambling by providing practical and easy ways for someone to deal with gambling addiction.

It may sound easy, but it’s much more than sending out a press release – such messages should be carefully framed and informed by the most recent public health comms research. For example, prospect theory suggests that people behave differently when messages are framed as either gains or losses.

A meta-review of public health campaigns found that gain-framed messages (which focus on attaining a desirable outcome or avoiding an undesirable outcome) were significantly more likely than loss-framed messages (which focus on attaining an undesirable outcome or avoiding a desirable outcome) to encourage prevention behaviours. Positive or gain-framed messages focus on the benefits of making improvements in a particular behaviour, whilst negative or loss-framed messages contain information about harmful consequences and hazards related to risky behaviours.

The evidence indicates that positive messaging works most effectively when it consists of less abstract messages that include specific actions, such as setting a deposit limit. Research with smokers found that warning messages should contain sufficient information and identify steps to help smokers progress towards quitting.

Online gambling messages that suggested specific information (e.g., “10 gambling commandments”) generated five times more website “click-throughs” than informative messages commonly used (e.g., “How problem gambling works”). A sense of urgency can also be introduced by using phrases such as, “Have you… yet?”. This is consistent with research on health warnings which has demonstrated that messages that are positive and have a sense of urgency are felt to be strong motivators for action.

Look at how other industries with similar reputational problems have done it by framing themselves as part of the solution – for instance, we found that Big Tobacco has invested heavily to try to transform itself into “New Tobacco”, with claims that the industry can be part of the public health solution to smoking.

2. Educational campaigns might not be the best idea

We also found that the most influential organisations in our research sample earned their influence by promoting educational and public awareness campaigns:

The NFL came on top by launching a responsible betting public awareness campaign that includes a $6.2 million, three-year partnership with the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG). It’s the largest grant ever for the NCPG, and according to executive director Keith Whyte, nearly doubles the annual budget of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organisation that was founded in 1972.

Similarly, betting giant Entain attracted media attention with a public awareness campaign – it launched responsible gaming NFTs that aim to educate the public on the dangers of problem gambling. It also linked up with gambling harm minimisation consultancy Epic Risk Management on a new initiative to educate Major League Soccer (MLS) players about gambling harm.

Meanwhile, online gaming giant Flutter revealed its new safer gambling strategy, which aims to improve all customers’ and colleagues’ understanding of gambling harm, while establishing protection measures so customers can use Flutter’s products safely.

In theory, such educational and public awareness campaigns engage players with information about ‘safer gambling’ behaviours and strategies, with the aim of increasing their awareness and knowledge, shifting their attitudes towards gambling and ultimately changing what they do in ways that prevent or reduce gambling harms. But the evidence generally indicates such campaigns are ineffective at changing behaviour although they can raise awareness.

Responsible gambling messages often inform gamblers of information about the probabilities of winning, and how outcomes are determined. These messages are predicated on the use of warnings for alcohol and tobacco products, informing consumers about the risks associated with excessive or inappropriate use. In the gambling context, the use of informative or educational messages is based on the concept of problem gambling being a result of irrational thoughts and beliefs. Many companies hypothesise that if gamblers understood the games and probabilities of winning, they would be able to make informed decisions regarding their involvement. Empirical research suggests that effectively communicated information does not consistently modify irrational beliefs or erroneous estimations about the chances of winning.

The failure of such information to modify behaviour is likely due to cognitive biases that enable gamblers to understand the low probabilities of winning, yet still believe that they may have a chance to win. Even when informative messages are accurately recalled, respondents still believe that their chances of winning are greater than the information contained within the messages, and do not modify their behaviour. Whilst informative messages can correct irrational beliefs, there is a limited empirical understanding of how such messages may impact gambling behaviour.

So, even though brands like the NFL, Entain and Flutter had the strongest influence in the media debate, perhaps due to the weight of their massive brands, their educational strategies might not be that effective in practice when it comes to actual behaviour change.

3. Go experiential

One organisation in our research sample – The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), a Canadian non-profit – earned its media influence with an unusual campaign. In order to help mitigate harm for young adults aged 18–24 – the age group most likely to experience harm from gambling – RGC needed to reimagine how they distribute prevention information to better encourage comprehension and effect behaviour change. That meant saying no to traditional lectures or pamphlets and saying yes to an edutainment experience that activated relevant interests to deliver one-on-one influence for this hard-to-impress audience.

The result, Check Your (Re)flex, a video game that measured the biometric readings of the player, showing young adults how their body reacts in a gaming experience to demonstrate the importance of safety when gambling. Check Your (Re)flex was promoted as a pioneering case that illustrates how personalised-experience design can turn gaming skills into gambling education to unlock real impact and change.

The RGC found that fighting instinctive emotion with facts can be a severe battle. Behavioural science’s ‘above average’ bias reminds us that human nature has us convinced we’re less vulnerable than the ordinary person. Added to that, young adults were clear that “this isn’t for me, I don’t have a problem.” Creating a chance to “see it to believe it” can check the ego, helping to awaken the rational mind to process important information, like how your emotions can overpower when gambling.

The non-profit also discovered that there’s power in speaking your audience’s language. When it comes to education and video games, the discourse is usually around decreasing screen time. Placing the educational context within a welcome source of entertainment can actively engage young adults in a subject they may associate with a ‘parental lecture’. In the case of this live experience, the setup of a portable game in school common areas created an entertainment spectacle that drew crowds and line-ups, where an ordinary educational booth would be working hard to get students to stop and take notice.

It’s easy in marketing to get entangled by generational beliefs – younger people often are framed as irresponsible risk takers – especially when you see statistics. Exploring what lies beneath the statistics can open up the empathy needed to build a true understanding of your audience and how to connect with them. Understanding the physiological brain development of young adults helped build a tool that showed them, without judgement, how they can help overcome natural limitations, giving them the awareness to safeguard themselves should they choose to gamble.

4. Incorporate some ESG strategies, but beware of “responsible gambling washing”

We also found that Peter Jackson, CEO of Flutter, emerged as the most influential corporate executive in the media debate:

Peter Jackson was cited in many media outlets reporting on Flutter‘s decision to tie staff bonuses to curbing problem gambling. A tenth of Flutter’s staff bonuses will be tied to preventing betting addiction for the first time this year as the group plans to increase spending on tackling problem gambling.

Jackson told the Financial Times the company spent more than £45mn in 2021 on safer gambling measures and that “levels of expenditure will grow”, even though limiting at-risk players could “moderate growth” in key markets. The group is aiming for 75 per cent of betters to use at least one of its safer gambling tools by 2030. Currently, about 35 per cent of clients had invoked its controls, the company said. “We are trying very hard, as we do across all of our brands around the world, to engage all the operators in a race to the top,” Jackson said.

Jackson’s initiative is a good example of incorporating the “S” in ESG – the social component which covers all the ways companies interact with their employees and the communities in which they operate. The idea of linking financial incentives with good causes has already been tried by companies like Google, Apple, Bank of America, Best Buy, HP and Microsoft, which are providing financial incentives based on reaching certain environmental sustainability metrics.

But critics always take such announcements with a pinch of salt, branding such initiatives as “greenwashing” – a form of messaging spin in which green PR and green marketing are allegedly used solely to convince the public that an organisation’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Similarly, Jackson’s initiative faced accusations of what can be called “responsible gambling washing”, with critics saying that it was merely trying to improve its image. But the CEO defended the business, stating that none of the projects Flutter donated to showed branding from the gambling group’s businesses nor did the company use data related to its initiatives to target potential customers. He warned that safer gambling tools were not as well understood in newly regulated markets such as the US, where betting companies have been pouring millions of dollars into advertising and free bets in a drive to attract players.

5. Make better use of social media

On social media, gambling is often portrayed by companies in a positive light as a fun and exciting activity, and is linked with adventure, mateship, sexualised imagery and gendered framing of content, often segmented towards young men.

Many posts encourage gambling by providing expert tips, promoting ease of use, and emphasising the winning aspect of gambling. Furthermore, many companies use social media to link gambling to sporting events, which might promote gambling as an acceptable and healthy activity.

In contrast, responsible gambling information is not featured in the majority of corporate social media profiles. For instance, we found that companies don’t post much responsible gambling-related content on Twitter, with some operators never posting responsible gambling messages, whilst others embedding the messages in small text at the foot of pictures.

And just like with traditional media, betting brands used Twitter primarily to promote their campaigns rather than as part of their campaigns.

There were occasional tweets reminding audiences to gamble responsibly, but their general nature hardly made them effective. Research from the broader health messaging literature suggests that messages could have increased effectiveness for such populations by communicating direct and tailored content (e.g., responsible gambling tips), rather than simply providing information about the availability of programs and resources. Critical to the effectiveness of such messages are the type of content used, the way they are framed, whether they engage consumers in self-referential processing, their level of specificity and applicability to use in the real world, and the use of social norms to influence the behaviour of the individual.

To be effective, responsible gambling messages should engage the gambler’s cognitive, emotional, and motivational faculties, and alter the behaviours of concern. It is plausibly unreasonable to expect that messages broadcast to all gamblers can be impactful given the many differences between players, including the type of resources they would each benefit from using. Tailored messaging has been shown to outperform traditional, static health information strategies, and is more likely to be read, remembered, and viewed as personally relevant.

A good example of such tailored social media messaging was a campaign by GambleAware, an independent charity. The campaign, called Bet Regret – Tap Out, aimed to encourage at-risk gamblers (ARGs) to change their betting behaviour by thinking a bet through before placing it.

GambleAware employed WWE legends Kurt Angle and Big Show, which were childhood heroes of many at-risk gamblers, to act as guardian angels saving bettors from Bet Regret. The restlers addressed bettors directly on social media telling ARGs to tap out. The campaign garnered a decrease in the number of at-risk gamblers, just over 40% said they’d use the words ‘Bet Regret’ in conversations, and 40% of more frequent bettors tried to tap out when placing a bet.

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