Who: The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Casumo Services Ltd, 888 UK Ltd, Bonne Terre Ltd (trading as Sky Vegas), Ladbrokes Betting & Gaming Ltd and Bonne Terre Ltd (trading as Sky Bingo)
When: August – September 2017
Law stated as at: 30 October 2017
Several gambling operators have been cited by the ASA for breaches of the CAP Code relating to ads run by their affiliate marketers.
Casumo, 888, Sky Vegas and Ladbrokes
In March 2017, a betting affiliate website, www.casinohack.co, ran an ad under the headline “On Their Wedding Night He Delivered A Secret She Wasn’t Ready For. The Result Will Have You In Tears”. The ad, which was designed to looked like editorial content, told a story about a man who was in debt and couldn’t afford his wife’s cancer treatment. It went on to describe how the man stumbled across a Casumo ad on Facebook for 200 free chances on the Reel King Game and ended up winning enough money to ease his financial concerns. The story contained an affiliate link for viewers to claim their own free chances on Casumo, and it had a ‘comments’ section at the bottom of the article where readers “discussed” their winning stories.
A near identical ad appeared on www.casinohack.co in March 2017 and www.24hournews.co in July 2017 for 888 Casino, on www.uk.24hoursnews.co in April 2017 for Sky Vegas and on www.24hourlynews.co.uk in June 2017 for Ladbrokes.
In response to complaints that the ads (a) suggested that gambling is an escape from depression and financial concerns and (b) weren’t obviously identifiable as advertising content and didn’t make the commercial intent clear, all four gambling brands responded to say that the ads were created by affiliates who did not submit the ads for review and who acted contrary to their respective internal policies on marketing content.
Unsurprising, the ASA upheld the two complaints in all four cases. The fact that the ads said “Advertorial” at the top did not help with the issue of whether they were identifiable as ads – the ASA stated that advertorials are editorial content which promote a product, whereas these ads were content that had been prepared entirely by the affiliate advertiser and that did not appear as part of other genuinely editorial content.
An advertorial promoting Sky Bingo appeared on DailyTopLinks.com in January 2017. The ad was in the form of a news article and featured the headline, “EXCLUSIVE REPORT: ABERDEEN CITY MCDONALD’S EMPLOYEE WINS £296,121 ON HER LUNCH BREAK“, followed by smaller text saying “Published on 24-01-2017 By Christine Perry, Daily News UK”. The advertorial went on to describe how a McDonald’s employee who had endured several hardships ended up winning a life changing amount of money on Sky Bingo.
The bottom of the advertorial showed text saying “DailyTopLinks.com is a general interest website containing articles about a wide variety of subjects. Many of these articles are what is commonly referred to as Advertorials. THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT AND NOT AN ACTUAL NEWS ARTICLE, BLOG, OR CONSUMER PROTECTION UPDATE“, followed by a description of what an advertorial is. Despite this, a complaint was made to the ASA as to whether the advertorial was clearly identifiable as a marketing communication.
Due to the fact that this wording was in small print at the bottom of the article, the ASA held that readers would not know that the story was marketing content until after they had read it, particularly given the impression given towards the start of the article that it was an editorial piece.
Sky Bingo said that the advertorial was posted by a third-party affiliate who had breached their contractual obligations and that Sky Bingo was not involved in creating the ad’s content. Sky Bingo also referenced the approval mechanism that it has in place for affiliate marketing, and noted that this affiliate had not submitted the advertorial for approval. Nevertheless, this did not stop the ASA from upholding the complaint.
Why this matters:
These cases are a reminder that affiliate marketing arrangements can be precarious for brands. Despite the gambling operators claiming to have policies and procedures in place to prevent harmful or deceptive advertising, the ASA upheld complaints against each of them as a result of their affiliate advertisers conveying their brands in a way which was not complaint with the CAP Code.
In the Sky Bingo adjudication, the ASA highlighted that CAP Code rule 1.8 places primary responsibility for observing the Code on marketers, and that others involved in preparing or publishing marketing communications, such as agencies, publishers and other service suppliers, must also abide by the CAP Code. Reputationally, none of the gambling operators came off well as a result of rogue affiliate marketers.
The prevalence of affiliate marketing has grown remarkably in the gambling industry. Given the scope for portraying gambling as a way to escape financial and emotional distress, the industry is particularly heavily regulated from an advertising perspective, with the CAP Code containing a dedicated section on gambling. These ASA adjudications appear to signal that regulatory pressure is growing for betting operators and this may be the reason that in September, SkyBet announced that it was closing down its UK affiliate marketing programmeme and that Paddy Power Betfair announced a “one strike” policy under which affiliates would have their engagement suspended if they breached the company’s internal policies.
There are of course plenty of other gambling brands that continue to utilise affiliate marketers to extend their reach. These brands, as well as companies in other industries that use affiliate marketers, should view the ASA adjudications as a reminder of the potential pitfalls of rogue affiliates and as a catalyst for reviewing internal policies to keep them in check.