Marketing strategies are essential in a market environment such as online sports betting wherein product differentiation is minimal and price inelasticity robust. Business insiders widely accept that product innovation is instantly replicated across competitors, which are permanently seeking to generate, so far unfruitfully, a disruptive competitive edge. In a context where the number of licensed bookmakers is constantly growing, advertising plays a big part in luring customers who cannot tell the difference between companies. Advertising and marketing spend on sports betting has increased exponentially over the last five years in Europe and that is mirrored on the exposure to betting commercial messages of sports fans.
For instance, a 2014 report published by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation estimated that viewers of the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League – the two most followed sport codes in Australia – are exposed to 10 to 15 minutes of gambling advertisements per game. Similarly, Dr. Sophie Lindsay and colleagues in a 2013 issue of BMC Public Health looked further into the environmental impact of gambling advertising in sport events. They calculated that in three rugby league matches the public had been exposed to ‘322 episodes’ of betting marketing – for example, considering an episode every time an electronic banner advertised a gambling site – which is somewhat paradoxical given in-play betting is illegal in Australia (as of mid-2016).
One of the marketing tricks is the use of the psychological bias known as the ‘representativeness heuristic’ (coined by Dr. Amos Tversky and Dr. Daniel Kahneman). Imagine the following two betting propositions concerning a soccer game: (a) FC Barcelona will lose the next match against the bottom team in the league (an extremely unlikely event, say 0.01 probability); (b) FC Barcelona will lose the next match against the bottom team in the league but (i.e. AND) Leo Messi will score at least one goal (this one an extremely likely event, for the sake of the argument, 0.99 probability). Mathematically speaking, proposition B can never be a better choice than proposition A, since P(A)=0.01 as opposed to P(B)=0.01×0.99= 0.0099. However, bookmakers understand that Messi scoring a goal is a highly representative event that can be effortlessly be retrieved from memory, transferring the representativeness to the whole betting proposition. In addition, it is plausible that representative heuristics work in conjunction with wishful thinking, overestimating the likelihood of an event based on one’s own preferences, as anecdotal evidence from betting advertisements concerning national teams participating in international competitions appear to suggest.
In a recent paper in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, I and my colleagues (Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez and Dr. Ana Estevez) discussed two of most utilized master narratives in online betting promotions are discussed, namely skill-enhancing narratives – in which there is an overemphasis on the capacities and knowledge of the bettor – and, at the other end of the spectrum, risk-lowering narratives – which under emphasise the risks involved in betting and typically overestimate the probability of winning.
Skill-enhancing narratives: In a 2016 issue of iGaming Business magazine, Vahe Baloulian, CEO of the betting software company BetConstruct, declared that new features were there to give customers ‘a chance to feel more in control by engaging more often and making decisions’ with ‘feel’ and ‘control’ being the keywords here. The ‘feel’ component refers to a perceived non-factual sensation that lies at the heart of the advertising endeavour. The perception of control over the betting activity has been found to be a common attribute of gambling narratives in Swedish research by Dr. Per Binde, in which elements of skill have been exaggerated, as well as in televised commercials from Canada (in a 2008 paper by John McMullan and Delthia Miller in the Journal of Gambling Issues), wherein betting has been associated with the imagery of media sport communication, skills, and long-meditated strategies, while luck was downplayed.
Many betting features newly added to online platforms are said by commercials to enhance the control of the user over the outcome of the event bet upon, including more gamified experiences (where passive bettors supposedly become players), immersive betting experiences, and fantasy sports (where the player actively recruits a team). In these examples, the betting experience demands a higher involvement from the bettor, arguably resulting in a psychological transference between the active role of a bettor executing actions and the actual influence a bettor’s actions may have on the outcome of an external event. In essence, betting advertising contributes to the myth of gambling as a sport, an activity that is healthy, harmless, and that can be mastered with practice and talent.
Among the most used selling points that enhance the self-efficacy and control of the sports bettor are the narratives of masculinity. Attributes such as loyalty to the team, being a real man, and being brave enough to prove sporting knowledge have been implicit in some sports betting messages, including stereotyped gender depictions and sexualized imagery. According to recent research by Dr. Nerilee Hing and colleagues (in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction), the prototype sports bettor is male, young, tech-savvy, and professional, which aligns with the target audience of betting advertising. This reinforces the idea of male providers that sublimates in gambling their manly instincts for aggression, competition, and combat, as was observed in the behaviour of horserace bettors as identified in early studies.
Risk-lowering advertising: In parallel to the skill-enhancing strategies, advertising diminishes the harmful consequences of excessive betting by representing it as a risk-free activity. The combined narrative would be that of a safe environment where intelligent people possess the tools to succeed. In an attempt to lower the perceived risk inherently embedded in any betting activity, three major messages have been emphasized by advertisers: (i) betting is a perfectly normal activity; (ii) errors in betting predictions are not fatal; and (iii) betting is a social activity.
Advertising has been frequently proposed as a significant mechanism of gambling normalisation including new social media channels (see Dr. Sally Gainsbury and colleagues 2016 research in the Journal of Gambling Studies). The portrayal of gambling attitudes and behaviours in media representations as well as in real life environments promotes the idea of gambling as an intrinsic form of entertainment. This is true for all forms of gambling but sports betting presents some singular intensifiers. Unlike any other gambling form, sport instils in betting its health and sanitization attributes. Attributes such as fair competition, success through talent and perseverance, equal opportunities and big rewards, respect for nature, green and healthy habits are transmitted to betting behaviour. Celebrities deepen that connection as they have been proven to reduce the perceived risk by the public of the products they endorse. Sportspeople tell the story of young, talented risk-takers who challenged the odds but emerged successful in the end, arguably a perfect incarnation of the bettor’s own aspirational narrative.
Another marketing technique broadly employed by betting operators concerns the provision of risk-free bets. Advertisements typically offer welcome bonuses for new customers, free bonuses for loyal clientele, and money-back exceptions in multiple complex accumulated bets. All of these free offers pose a dual threat. On the one hand, the so-called free money requires bettors to engage in further betting in order to reclaim their benefits (leading to money losses in the process). On the other hand, even if it is a bona fide free bonus, problem gamblers might conceptualise betting as a riskless activity that entails no responsibilities even when done excessively.
A third main risk-lowering technique used in commercials is the representation of betting as a social form of entertainment to be conducted alongside other people. Solitary gambling, like solitary drinking, has been thought to be a determinant and/or consequence of problem gambling. However, some studies have raised the alarm about the misconception that gambling, when done in group, cannot be problematic (see the recent work of Emily Deans and her colleagues). In fact, peer facilitation has been identified as a fundamental contributing factor to impulse betting, with excessive betting being more plausible when sport matches are viewed in the company of others (as shown by Mattew Lamont and colleagues in a 2016 qualitative study in Sport Management Review). Sport is a cultural product, socially consumed (watched, practiced, discussed, and bet upon). The social stigma attached to gambling habits might be shifting towards its naturalisation, a long-term process that advertising cannot carry out on its own but can certainly facilitate.
by Mark Griffiths, Ph.D.
Note: This article was co-written with Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez