Ontario is considering a ban on the use of celebrities in gambling ads because of concerns of influencing minors. But do celebrity ambassadors actually appeal more to younger people?
PlayCanada asked Dr. Antonia Mantonakis, a professor of marketing at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business. Mantonakis specializes in consumer psychology and has studied the role of celebrity sponsorships.
She said the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario is right to be concerned about the ambassadors promoting Ontario sportsbooks and online casinos. Stars such as Connor McDavid and others are more likely to appeal to consumers not yet old enough to gamble. The legal age for gambling at either a retail or online Ontario casino or sportsbook is 19.
“I think that it is a valid concern,” Mantonakis said when asked about the impact of celebrity endorsements in gambling ads. “There’s definitely the possibility of influence for people who should not be targeted by these ads.”
Younger people less likely to have established firm tastes
Mantonakis said younger people can be more easily influenced because they are less likely to have established firm predilections.
“Let’s compare Boomers to Gen Z,” she said. “Boomers are already established in their preferences. They know what they like. They’re not going to change. They’re not going to be easily persuaded or influenced to something new because they know what they like.
“Now, we go to the other end of the spectrum, and we see that minds are the most malleable for the youngest generation that is starting to have some buying power. That’s where it’s tricky as a marketer because while they want to maybe influence, they also want to paint a picture about a brand, tell a story about a brand, try to get some early onset of brand loyalty for the younger consumer.
“It’s a very touchy, tricky subject because what is the product category? If we’re looking at something like makeup or clothing and influencing personal tastes for those types of product categories, it’s acceptable. But, if we’re looking at cannabis, gambling, smoking and those other categories it’s tricky.”
It’s the same logic that led to Joe Camel being banned
It’s the main reason the cartoon camel the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company once used to try to sell Camel cigarettes was widely banned long ago. Joe Camel clearly was an attempt to appeal to children.
If the AGCO implements new rules, it would effectively terminate all current and future advertisements featuring active or retired athletes. In addition to athletes, companies would no longer be able to employ any of the following figures in their advertisements:
- Cartoon characters.
- Social media influencers.
- Symbols or role models who are “reasonably expected to appeal to minors.”
In Ontario, celebrity gambling ambassadors most widely seen include:
- McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, Jamie Foxx, Barry Sanders and Kevin Garnett promoting BetMGM.
- Auston Matthews representing Bet99.
- The Trailer Park Boys fronting for PointsBet.
- JB Smoove pitching for Caesars.
- Dan O’Toole promoting BetRivers.
Industry stakeholders have until May 8 to submit any comments or concerns to the AGCO.
Any new rules would not take effect until three months after the amendment is finalized.
Other marketing studies agree celebrities have greater impact on the young
A number of academic studies conclude that celebrity endorsements are particularly influential on young people.
This was backed up by a study published in March of this year. Protecting children and young people from contemporary marketing for gambling was published in April edition of Health Promotion International.
The study’s abstract reads, in part:
“Around the world, children are being exposed to intensive marketing for gambling products. This normalizes perceptions that gambling is essentially a harmless form of entertainment, despite mounting evidence of the harms it causes… A comprehensive public health approach to gambling is urgently required, which must include effective action to limit the influence of marketing for gambling products, while recognizing that it is never possible to insulate children entirely from their reach.”
Powerful findings about children and gambling ads
That research paper included a table that detailed the evidence of the impact of gambling marketing on minors (those under the age of 18).
Chief among them was the fact that “celebrity endorsements — particularly the use of athletes and sporting personalities” was gambling marketing content that appeals particularly to young people. Minors found that celebrity endorsements increased trust in the brands those celebrities represented.
Other highlights of the evidence concluded most minors:
- Recalled seeing gambling marketing.
- Demonstrated depth of knowledge and awareness by recalling brand colours, specific promotions and ads.
- Were able to name multiple gambling brands.
- Remembered seeing marketing on social media and on television during sports.
- Recalled specific examples of different types of marketing and its placement strategies.
- Perceived gambling as a normal or common part of sport due to the marketing they observe.
- Were influenced by portrayals of gambling as a fun, social and easy way to win money.
- Indicated they wanted to try gambling in the future.
The Mere Exposure Effect proves minors have been impacted
The impact of advertising has long been studied by academics.
Particularly well researched has been The Mere Exposure Effect. Mantonakis described it as: “when we observe some kind of influence on someone’s behaviour where they don’t have any conscious recollection of having seen a message or being exposed to something.”
She said “countless papers published on this topic since the 1960s” have proven that “when you flash images or flash messages, the more frequently those messages are flashed, even if a person doesn’t consciously remember seeing them… if you ask them [which of two things they] prefer… the one they were exposed to 10 times as opposed to one they were exposed to five times or very briefly is the one that gets preferred.”
Using The Mere Exposure Effect to assess the impact of McDavid on young people, Mantonakis said:
“We can conclude that if young people who are growing up idolizing Connor McDavid see these messages, they might not have that disposable income or they might not have access to these [sportsbook] apps on their phone. They may not have consciously even considered these [gambling] behaviours. But the more they’re exposed to it, the more likely they might develop that preference [for gambling] in the future.”
McDavid, Matthews more likely to appeal to young hockey fans
There’s little wonder why BetMGM, in particular, picked Gretzky and McDavid as the faces of its Canadian campaign.
Mantonakis told PlayCanada that BetMGM’s use of Gretzky was a “brilliant choice” from a marketing perspective.
“When we look at any kind of celebrity endorser, what we want to look at is their trust, their authenticity, their likability,” she said. “So Wayne Gretzky checks all those boxes. And somebody like Wayne Gretzky has all sorts of brands in his portfolio… he’s asked to be in these partnerships because he offers those things.”
Yet, Gretzky is likely to appeal more to older people. That’s where the use of McDavid and Matthews in gambling ads raises more concerns. Both are among the biggest stars in the NHL
“If we look at a younger hockey player who might offer all those things, who is that targeting? It’s younger consumers. And so that’s why we have to question… who is the consumer of that celebrity, or who is the biggest fan base of that celebrity? And what is the product category that we’re we’re talking about? I think that we have to be careful when we’re looking at topics like gambling, alcohol, cannabis, those kinds of categories.
“If a marketer chooses to use a celebrity who really appeals and is relevant to the younger consumer, that is very different than if they choose a celebrity who might be older and might appeal to Generation X.”
Professional gambler Harley Redlick told PlayCanada in March that he isn’t a fan of celebrity endorsers in gambling ads, either.
“We need to do a better job of protecting kids,” Redlick said. “The Connor McDavid ads are clearly targeted to children. No adult is taking gambling advice from [McDavid].”
Social media influencers prove powerful
Beyond sports starts, Mantonakis said the AGCO was right to include social media influencers among those it is considering banning. She said the evidence shows social media and peer-to-peer influence has proven to be deeply impactful on younger people. She said that influence is strongest with Generation Z, those that Statistics Canada lists as being born between 1997 and 2012.
“In Generation Z [we see] really heavy peer-to-peer influence, very heavy social media influence,” Mantonakis said. “Who people follow, what trends are there, what is seen online, they’re going to follow on those trends as opposed to somebody who is a little older.”
A continuation of the AGCO’s hard stance on gambling ads
For those that make a “free enterprise” argument, the AGCO has already taken a hard stance on advertising. Ontario’s internet gambling advertising standards do not allow Ontario sports betting or online casino sites to advertise bonuses, inducements or credits. If the main goal is consumer protection, particularly the protection of those under age, a ban on celebrity endorsements would seem the logical next step.
Such a ban has already happened in the United Kingdom. In April of 2022, the UK banned athletes, and reality television and social media from all forms of gambling advertising. Recently, football clubs in the Premier League announced a collective decision to ban gambling sponsorships from the fronts of their jerseys by the 2025-26 season.
Given the proven power of celebrity endorsements, it would be little surprise if Ontario decides to follow suit.