Anger At AGCO’s Ban On Celebrities In Gambling Ads Is Misdirected

Written By Dave Briggs on September 18, 2023
Missed target with text main ACGO criticism is off target

Much of the blowback over the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s ban on athletes representing online gambling operators is misdirected.

Yes, the provincial gambling regulator’s new advertising restrictions have produced widespread confusion about what will be allowed in Ontario.

Yes, releasing news of the ban without much-needed details about what, exactly, will be banned was an optics exercise the AGCO should have avoided altogether.

And, yes, those rules will do zilch to address the biggest consumer gripe — the sheer volume of gambling ads.

That last part appears to be the biggest criticism of the new policy. But, those that point the finger at the AGCO for not curtailing the volume of ads are way off base.

What the AGCO’s ban is supposed to accomplish

First, let’s review.

Off the top, it’s important to note the ban won’t go into effect until the end of February 2024. This gives operators six months to adjust or plan their media campaigns.

What, exactly, is the point of the AGCO’s ban? Clearly, it’s not to address the volume of ads.

Here is exactly what the regulator is changing with respect to its advertising rules as outlined in this press release with the new language in bold:

Gambling advertising shall not:

  • Use or contain cartoon figures, symbols, role models, social media influencers, celebrities, or entertainers who would likely be expected to appeal to minors. [This requirement has been changed]
  • Use active or retired athletes, who have an agreement or arrangement made directly or indirectly between an athlete and an operator or gaming-related supplier, in advertising and marketing except for the exclusive purpose of advocating for responsible gambling practices.[This requirement is new]

While details are still to come on all this, the intent seems clear: to ban gambling advertising that appeals to minors.

That’s a noble goal that needs to be applauded.

That means athletes, clearly, will be banned from representing Ontario online casinos and ON sportsbooks unless they are doing responsible gambling campaigns.

Banned, too, will be any other kind of celebrity that would be expected to appeal to minors.

Here’s where we need a lot of details about who will qualify, but my read on that is that celebrities won’t be banned from representing online casino operators in Ontario. They will just be banned if they are reasonably appealing to kids.

How the AGCO judges that last part is a concern, but let’s move on for now.

Blame the operators and broadcasters for the ad onslaught, not the AGCO

Meanwhile, fault for the volume of ads should be directed to the operators and broadcasters, not the AGCO.

The AGCO isn’t in the business of restricting legal free enterprise. In fact, one just needs to look at its online gambling strategy to know they are one of the least restrictive regulators when it comes to online gambling.

Unlike most other jurisdictions in the world, Ontario’s iGaming sector is wide open to anyone that wants in, qualifies and pays the entry fees — which, by comparison to other regions, are relatively low.

As of today, Ontario is home to 50 online operators that offer close to 80 different legal online gambling sites.

Clearly, the AGCO has no interest in restricting the number of companies that want to do business in Ontario. Why would anyone think they would want to restrict how many ads those operators wish to place or the number of ads a broadcaster wants to broadcast?

What the AGCO has been very interested in doing from the start is restricting the content of the ads.

AGCO banning harmful ad content, not the ads themselves

The AGCO’s  internet gambling advertising standards famously do not allow Ontario online gambling sites to advertise bonuses, inducements or credits.

To the regulator, this is a consumer protection issue of the highest order and it’s most to promote responsible gambling in Canada.

Whether that has led to a reduction in harm is still up for debate. But like the ban on celebrities that appeal to minors, the AGCO should get points for the effort.

And while that ban on bonuses, inducements or credits is, in itself, a restriction on free enterprise, it’s probably a decent tradeoff. You can advertise, but you must do so responsibly.

Fair enough.

The future of Ontario’s online gambling sector depends on responsible gambling.

As much as consumers hate being exposed to too many ads, there is an upside

There is also an important tradeoff when it comes to the volume of ads.

Yes, few people enjoy being bombarded by advertising, but it does pay for the expensive programming we’ve come to demand. It’s a necessary evil.

Besides, not a lot has changed here. We have long been inundated with ads. We’ve just accepted being blasted by beer, car, clothes and cleaning product ads. Why gambling ads are more offensive to all except those that abhor that activity is baffling.

The opening of Ontario’s online gambling market saw operators spending lavishly to try to gain market share. That has provided a much-needed revenue source for media companies struggling in the face of ad-free streaming.

I just wish the big Canadian media companies used this new revenue source more wisely.

Broadcasters simply must do better

It troubles me that the same big media companies — looking mostly at you Bell and Rogers — that have taken in this new revenue from gambling operators while routinely disposing of employees en masse.

I get that this semi-frequent and callous dispatching owes more to wanting to control expenses and appease investors to drive share prices. But, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for the people that consume the product.

Apart from a dearth of broadcasting talent that might appeal to viewers, the major broadcasters also do a horrible job trying to appeal to bettors.

As pro bettor Harley Redlick has said many times: the mainstream broadcasters that aren’t serious bettors are now tasked with providing poor information that is a turnoff to bettors and non-bettors alike. Why not take a page from the Manning brothers and have a separate simulcast feed for sports events that’s just for bettors? That would leave the traditional broadcasters to do what they do best on the main feed.

Also, I dearly wish some of this gambling advertising had filtered down to smaller markets. That would help keep important local stations and news outlets afloat. Then, the onslaught truly would have an upside.

Where the AGCO can be faulted

All that said, the AGCO is not without fault in this matter.

Clearly, it should have avoided releasing any information on the ban until it spelled out exactly what and who was being banned. Doing as it did simply smacks of it feeling pressured to show it was doing something to tackle advertising some were concerned were appealing to minors.

Giving operators six months to adjust doesn’t look great, either. Yes, that kind of lead time is often needed to alter marketing campaigns. Yet, on the surface, it smacks of allowing operators to get through the all-important NFL betting season with a status quo the regulator already finds objectionable.

Also, saying clarification on the rules is coming “soon” is dicey. Historically, the AGCO has proven it does not know the definition of that word.

Ban has left us with many questions

As it stands, operators and their marketing teams are widely baffled about how to proceed.

Better nothing was said at all until the details were spelled out.

As for the details about who and what will be banned, I have many questions:

  1. Who at the AGCO will determine that a celebrity appeals mostly to children and how will they measure it?
  2. What, exactly, counts as a celebrity? This is especially problematic in the murky world of social media influencers.
  3. What about a celebrity that plays a role in an ad that could appeal to children? (i.e. theScore’s humorous campaign employing Gerry Dee, Susie Essman and Rex Lee) They are playing characters, not themselves. Should they be banned if their real personas have appeal to minors?
  4. Will celebrity voiceovers count? John Goodman voices a new FanDuel “Cherish Football” ad. Since he was also the voice of Sully in Monsters Inc., Pacha in The Emperor’s New Groove and Big Daddy La Bouff in The Princess and the Frog, does that mean he appeals to children?

I could continue, but you get the point. The rule needs a lot of clarification and the sooner the better.

But criticizing the AGCO for not reducing the volume of ads not only isn’t what this is about, it shouldn’t be their concern.

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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in Canada with emphasis on the casino, sports betting and horse racing sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Canada and Michigan.

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