Expect gambling ads to get more ‘creative’ amid Ontario’s stricter rules

Companies offering online gambling to Ontarians will soon have to try new some approaches to advertising, as a provincial regulator moves to bar athletes and other celebrities from promoting their services.

The amended rules from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) also prohibit from ads any entertainers, social-media influencers, role models and cartoon characters who would “likely be expected” to appeal to underage Ontarians.

What will that look like in a province that has been bombarded with gambling-related advertising — which has helped drive tens of billions of dollars in wagers since online betting was broadly legalized in 2022?

The new rules “will likely push operators to be more creative,” said Steven Salz, the CEO and co-founder of Rivalry, an esports-focused betting company, in an emailed statement.

The industry, he noted, has “historically relied heavily on celebrity and athlete endorsements.”

The restrictions will apply across all platforms, meaning the familiar faces that have helped with the hype — such as Wayne Gretzky, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid — will presumably vanish from these promotional blasts.

Advertising experts predict the companies will employ a mix of technology and other proven marketing strategies to make sure people still know where to gamble.

Gambling advertising is seen in the background during a baseball game at Toronto's Rogers Centre on Thursday, as Blue Jays star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. reacts to a play. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

Impact on operators

William Woodhams, chief executive of the British bookmaker Fitzdares, has already seen a version of this movie. His company had to change lanes after a similar ban on athletes' participation in U.K. gambling advertising was announced there last year.

“We shot a video with Fulham [F.C.] players the day before the ban!” Woodhams told CBC News via email. He says Fitzdares replaced them with former players and pundits.

Fitzdares also operates in Ontario and may need to adjust its ads there, based on what the AGCO announced this week.

“Our current advertising uses vintage sports images which we hope will not infringe the rules,” he said, adding that the company is seeking clarification on some points. 

Paul Burns, the president of the Canadian Gaming Association (CGA), also wants more clarity on what is and isn't allowed.

He says industry members await guidance on interpreting the regulations — such as who qualifies as an “athlete” and who might appeal to kids.

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Possible tactics

Marketing expert Tony Chapman sees parallels to how tobacco companies changed their marketing over time.

Tobacco companies once used identifiable and eye-catching mascots like Joe Camel — a cartoon character used to sell Camel products in the '80s and '90s — or the Marlboro Man. Chapman points out that even Fred Flintstone helped promote cigarettes in the early 1960s.

But as those marketing methods became frowned upon and the industry faced hurdles to promoting its product, Chapman says tobacco companies “had to get very creative.” 

He says Ontario's incoming regulations are “long overdue,” though also sees potential loopholes that will allow athletes who previously appeared in such ads to simply side-step into those promoting responsible gambling.

For him, that should be a particular no-no.

Chapman also says a technology-driven shift toward “hyper-personalization” in marketing will increasingly allow gambling operators to put together ads that would not have been possible in the past. Using AI and data, he says they'll be able to shape messaging very specifically for an individual — whether that person is a first-time or veteran gambler, or a sports fan who thinks they can profit from their knowledge via betting.

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Natalie Coulter, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Toronto's York University, says as some potentially harmful products have come under scrutiny — tobacco, plastics, oil and gas — those industries have often turned to “classic models” emphasizing the role the individual has in preventing harm, while softening the focus on the responsibility of corporate actors, such as pushing individuals to stop smoking or to litter less. 

While engaging in these campaigns, “they are distracting from major policy change,” Coulter said.

Not right away

Because the incoming Ontario regulations won't go into effect until late February, they won't be in force during the upcoming NFL season, or across much of the NBA and NHL seasons.

For Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and professor emeritus of sport and public policy at the University of Toronto, this lag is a problem.

“They really haven't read their own media release about the harm [of the advertisements],” Kidd told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, referring to the provincial regulator.

A tobacco advertisement featuring the now-discontinued Joe Camel character is seen on the side of a New York City building in July 1997. (Jeff Christensen/Reuters)

But Burns, at the CGA, says operators have contractual obligations that need time to be dealt with. Sounding a similar note, the AGCO said via email that the nearly six-month period “supports a smooth transition” for operators.

The AGCO also said “other jurisdictions outside of North America” took similar steps.

When the U.K. clamped down on athletes appearing in such advertising, companies there also had roughly six months to adjust. 

The U.K. ban “really changed things that much, but its clear intention was to avoid promoting gaming to younger people, which I presume it will do,” said Woodhams, the Fitzdares executive.

More recently, the English Premier League said it would stop putting logos of gambling sponsors on the front of its jerseys — though, again, it's a step that won't be implemented right away.

Woodhams also says the Premier League's move “hasn't stopped the gaming companies moving their budget” to other spaces, like LED boards. (Fitzdares has done the same, he said.)

West Ham's Jarrod Bowen, left, challenges for the ball with Newcastle's Dan Burn during an English Premier League match in April. Premier League clubs have agreed to ban sponsorship by gambling companies on the front of their shirts — though the move won't be implemented right away. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

Back in Ontario, observers outside the industry approve of the AGCO's changes — with some hoping it will go even further.

“I think this is an important step, but I don't think it should be the end,” said Coulter, noting that legal-age consumers may also be at risk from the advertising reach of the gambling industry.

Some sports fans feel the same way.

Cynthia Mendoza, a retired teacher and basketball fan from Vancouver, says she's tired of all the gambling-related content on Raptors broadcasts. 

She thinks a lot about her former students and how they might be influenced by it.

And while “relieved” that a change is on the horizon, Mendoza would rather see the ads go away, entirely.

From Woodhams's perspective, the marketing activities in Canada “are calming down,” with the industry getting the message that some operators “had ‘gone too far'” in Ontario and created a negative narrative for the industry.

“This wasn't welcome,” he said. 

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