The influencer marketing channel is one of the most significant marketing segments in the digital ad space outside of search engine optimisation and pay-per-click advertising. This fact is no surprise, as celebrities have been endorsing products for as long as we can remember.
When Gambling Was Taboo
While it is difficult to remember when online gambling was not a part of the internet, the reality is that the first online casinos launched in the mid to late nineties. Rather than the mainstream hobby it is today, gambling back then fell into the “sin” category alongside other daily vices like smoking cigarettes and consuming alcohol.
The only folks associated with casinos and gambling then were shady underground characters like Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, Tony ‘The Hat’ Cornero, and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. The connection to organised crime gave casinos, gaming halls, and other gambling destinations an air of danger, and those who participated were tough guys by association.
While this taboo element made casinos exciting and profitable, it did not allow them to gain mainstream acceptance.
Online Gambling Pushed Boundaries
When the first online casinos hit the market, gamblers no longer needed to travel to Las Vegas. They could play blackjack, roulette, and other games of chance from their home computer – or, more likely, from the office computer where no one would know.
Over time the audience of online gambling continued to grow despite attempts from governments to stifle it. This growing demand led forward-thinking markets like the UK to make it legal for licensed online casinos and betting sites to offer games of chance to their residents.
The net effect of this regulation was increased income for the country, easier access for players, and an opportunity for the operators to engage in above-the-line advertising on radio stations, television networks, print media and local online advertising platforms.
Celebrities Will Always Follow the Money
As licensing and regulation grew, so did the profits these operations generated. However, gambling sites needed to attract larger audiences and turned to the tried and trusted formula of celebrity endorsements to keep up the pace of this initial growth.
Online poker was one of the first gambling products to take advantage of mainstream endorsements. The heyday of the online poker sector saw celebrities like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Shannon Elizabeth become well-known poker players, participating in various tournaments and other endorsements.
Over time, the regulated casino gambling space pulled in an eclectic list of celebrities, including Alice Cooper, Mike Tyson, Nicki Minaj, and even the Canadian singer-songwriter Drake.
Drake is one of a growing number of influential names who also spend big money on sports betting. Drake is an outspoken supporter of the Stake gambling properties, where he is believed to have placed accumulated wagers worth over $1 billion since 2021.
Too Much Money and Too Few Answers
One of the most controversial gambling endorsements in recent history was when Twitch gaming streamers like TrainWreckz began playing high-stakes video slots live. While the streamer was the only one gambling, the audience could tip the player, who would then wager their money for himself and naturally celebrate significant wins creating a false sense of accomplishment.
Regulators were also concerned that the financial terms of these endorsements were kept from the public. Questions like “how much money were they staked, what did they earn over and above their stake, what percentage of losses were they paid back” and others began to surface with little to no answers ever being provided.
These unanswered questions were a big part of why Twitch decided to ban streamlining online slots and other games of chance from unlicensed or grey market betting platforms.
Regulators Crack Down on Endorsements
When it comes to promoting a product like casino games or sports betting it is no longer just about how much reach a mainstream celebrity or online influencer has but also the age demographic of their fanbase.
1. Great Britain
The UK recently began enforcing a ban on football players and other celebrities when it comes to endorsing gambling products. The Gambling Commission’s logic is as simple as it is unchallengeable – these stars are followed by adults and youth alike but cannot show their gambling endorsements only to the adults.
The Committees of Advertising Practice said:
“No more top-flight footballers or other high-profile sportspeople promoting the latest odds. No more social media influencers, TV stars or other celebrities popular with youth inviting us to bet on red. And, no more gambling ads featuring video game images or gameplay.”
They have extended this ad barrier to exclude gambling brands from sponsoring team jerseys and stadiums for the same reason.
2. The Netherlands
June 2022 saw the Dutch Gambling regulator, Ksa, follow in the Gambling Commission’s footsteps announcing that it would no longer allow “role models” to appear in gambling-related advertising.
The strictly enforced ban includes the likeness, voice and any references to their celebrity, such as car number or jersey number. The Ksa has, however, made an allowance for celebrity endorsements where the product is advertised in the state lottery or a charitable lottery.
The Belgian government took their position a step further, opting for a ban on celebrity gambling advertising and all gambling advertising as of September 2022.
Vincent Van Quickenborne, the region’s deputy prime minister and justice minister, said:
“The philosophy is that only people who want to gamble and actively seek information about gambling will be confronted with gambling advertising in the future.”
Van Quickenborne outlined a regime prohibiting gambling advertising in above-the-line media, digital media (including banners and videos), and all social media platforms, and even going so far as to outlaw physical posters showcasing gambling brands and offers specifically.
The Canadian parliament kicked off 2023 by proposing more significant restrictions on advertising and other promotional engagements where athletes are seen to promote sportsbooks. The call for more restraint in this department came from MP Brian Masse, who was one of the people to formulate the popular Bill C-218.
“The federal government should be looking at this no matter what, but if we want quicker action, the provinces can deal with this right away because they control how this actually is done.”
He aims to have individual provinces enact their own advertising limitations on celebrity endorsements as they will be quicker and more productive than waiting for the government to pass a federal law.
Masse is clear that his concerns are not for adults who follow these celebrities but rather that their influence extends to a broad range of at-risk and high-risk individuals who cannot be omitted from seeing the gambling content these individuals endorse.
Where To From Here?
The challenge placed before the gambling industry and those looking to monetise fame are how to do it safely and responsibly. At its core, none of the gambling regulators has a problem with the endorsements themselves, only that the audience for these endorsements is unfocused.
This means finding celebrities with adult appeal who do not influence younger audiences or platforms that allow the endorsements to be specifically served to an age-verified audience. With enough time and resources, there will surely be savvy developers and marketing experts who can crack the code and get this form of marketing back on track.