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Time Has Come For US Online Gambling Licensees To Identify ‘True Villains’

Written By Derek Helling | Updated:
Hero And Villain

When you’re unfairly cast as a scapegoat for a societal ill, one of the most efficient ways to escape that situation is to give the accusers the party truly responsible for the malady. When it comes to the occurrence of people struggling with problem gambling, online gambling licensees are often assigned the black hat in the United States.

As that characterization depends on a simple narrative, the best way to counter it is with another equally simple narrative: offer up the real villain. In this context, that’s the unlicensed online casinos taking action in the US illegally.

However, US gaming licensees mostly ignore the existence of offshore competition to promote their products in their marketing. As more jurisdictions in the US have been considering promotion restrictions, the time might be right to put more effort into emphasizing the difference between themselves and the unlicensed operators.

A simple narrative is needed to paint a clear picture

The narrative being used to argue for new restrictions on advertising for licensed gambling operators is quite simple. That storyline goes that these companies are preying upon people who struggle with gambling-related behavioral pathologies, and the solution to that problem is limiting how and whether the gaming licensees can advertise their products.

That storyline is nothing new in US politics. It’s a narrative that Propheta Communications CEO Kevin Mercuri, who has experience lobbying politicians on behalf of the gaming industry and teaches public affairs at Emerson College, has seen before.

“This is a perfect example of why businesses need to heed the lessons of history,” Mercuri said. “The alcohol industry experienced a similar situation decades ago, resulting in the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States implementing a voluntary ban on liquor advertising on radio and television and in printed media with a high percentage of readers under the drinking age.

This example of self-regulation succeeded in keeping the FCC and FTC out of the industry’s business. Much like alcohol, gambling is a vice that can easily be cast as the ‘villain’ by opportunistic legislators. A large, vocal and established faction of voters remains opposed, and their support can be easily conjured with the right communications plan.”

The gambling industry has already taken some steps in the right direction in this regard.

Existing trade group standards already meet some proposed rules

Some legislative proposals target certain language in ads like “risk-free.” However, one prominent trade association for licensed online gambling operators in the US has already addressed that. A March 2023 update to the American Gaming Association’s (AGA) Responsible Marketing Code banned the term “risk-free” in promotional materials for the AGA’s members.

Bills have contained other tenets that the AGA code does not meet as of yet, however.

To avoid further restrictions from lawmakers and regulators that AGA members may not wish to deal with, it might be necessary for them to add more language or tighten the existing language in their code. A code that exceeds existing regulations protecting consumers could be even more vital as US jurisdictions weigh legalizing online casino play.

At the same time, fighting the narrative that they are the villain when it comes to societal ills associated with gambling is important as well. While the counter-narrative should be equally simple, crafting and dispersing that message requires careful consideration.

Effective messaging starts with the recipients, not the message

To rally opposition against or support for any political objective, Mercuri says that “the first step is audience analysis.” Usually, there are three target audiences, according to Mercuri:

  • Outright supporters
  • Potential supporters
  • Opponents

“The plan should aim to reinforce supporters, address the needs and concerns of potential supporters, and respectfully but effectively counter the opposition” according Mercuri. After identifying the various groups, Mercuri thinks licensed gambling regulators can “use this opportunity to address the crisis presented by offshore operators, casting them as the villain.”

There are some potential explanations as far as why that hasn’t been a heavy emphasis to this point.

Taking it to the street

To be thorough, the AGA has been pushing law enforcement to crack down on illegal gambling in the US. However, Mercuri believes that for individual gambling companies, “the time is right to draw a clear line between the offshore operators and the licensed and regulated market here at home.”

Most communications from such companies to players tend to be promotional. Some communiques focus on other aspects of responsible gambling, like ensuring players know about customizable spending and time limits within the apps.

Mercuri believes the reason why there isn’t more messaging on the costs of illegal gambling is because “the US iGaming industry hasn’t properly organized around this matter. Everyone acknowledges the problem, but no one seems to have mounted a serious effort to solve it … yet. The US-based industry is emerging from its nascent stage of development, and the time is right for operators to focus their sights on dealing with the offshores.”

In short, licensed gambling operators can’t complain about being cast as villains when they have chosen not to take control of the narrative themselves. The simplest, albeit difficult, way to wrestle back that control is to present society with the real villains.

Photo by Shutterstock/Rasdi Abdul Rahman
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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