The Belgian government recently announced new restrictions on gambling advertising.
Included in the new legislation is a complete ban on online casino television advertising, restrictions on digital advertising and an 8pm television watershed on sports betting adverts, with a prohibition during live sports broadcasts. Celebrity or athlete endorsements of gambling products and services will also not be permitted.
Gambling Insider reached out to Philippe Vlaemminck, Belgian gaming expert and Pharumlegal partner, for some in-depth analysis of the new regulations.
Far from just affecting Belgium, however, Vlaemminck sees the development as further proof of a negative attitude towards gambling advertising spreading across Europe. The message, he believes, is clear. The industry’s response is another matter entirely.
What exactly has happened in Belgium with advertising regulation?
It is actually a Royal Decree, but coming from the Minister of Justice. This is, first of all, the result of the Fifa World Cup. It was very successful for the operators and led to an enormous increase in sports betting and online activities. As a result, it’s difficult, not just in Belgium but in the rest of Europe, because of political concern about excessive advertising and gambling.
Belgium’s approach is quite reasonable compared to Italy’s total ban. Many Italian operators say they may as well cancel their marketing departments and fire all their marketing people – because they can’t even have business cards anymore. We know Bulgaria and Latvia are also considering far-reaching restrictions, we know the Gambling Commission in Great Britain is looking into it and we can see in Europe a negative attitude towards gambling advertising in general.
There is, at least, a very big concern from regulators about uncontrolled advertising. Belgium is no different, except for the fact there is a balanced discussion due to the government being composed of different political parties.
What do you make of the restrictions on online casinos?
The measures are very severe for online casinos. They can only advertise on their own website. To me, advertising on your own website is almost not advertising. I’m puzzled about that. The measures are more severe for online casinos than sports betting yet the reason for concern was because of the World Cup and excessive betting. That was the origin of the concern but there was heavy lobbying from the [sports] betting firms.
In my mind, this proves the sector on its own has underestimated the legislative issues. Instead of taking care of measures themselves through self-regulation, the regulators have come up with something more. There is a mixture of CSR-intended measures supplemented by restrictions on when advertising can happen on television.
It’s not only advertising, there’s limits on how much you can bet. But, in general, what we see is advertising on online casinos is restricted to a company’s website, advertising for [sports] betting is more limited during the periods in which it can be done. The rest involves classic measures such as self-exclusion and responsible gaming. What is surprising is the very severe measures for online casinos and the less severe measures for [sports] betting companies.
What is the timeframe for the regulations to come into effect?
It will be the first day of the eighth month after publication, with some measures taking place from 1 January. At least in that way, it’s quite a reasonable period. It’s not all of a sudden. There’s a transition period which is not surprising.
The European Court of Justice has always said there has to be a consistent policy and that advertising must always have some forms of limitation. There have been warnings to be careful with advertising, but nobody heeded these warnings. Short-term profits can lead to the worst situation, like in Italy. Even if it won’t last as it’s too far-reaching, it still exists in the meantime. In that regard, what is happening in Belgium is more reasonable. But the online casino restrictions are still surprising.
There will still be advertising for land-based and offline activities, but it won’t be directing you online. The fact you still have the possibility to offer online betting probably will compensate a little bit. I have to admit, for a while in every street, you could see online casino adverts everywhere, with some of these advertisements over the edge with the way things were presented. I think this had its impact. The overall impact is that industry operators must be more cautious and careful about how they present themselves and how they advertise.
How can the market cope with this?
The industry really has to heed the warnings from society as a whole: be more decent, be more careful with what and where you advertise. If you don’t take the current limitations into consideration, it could get worse.
Since companies have so much time, if they have smart marketing people, they will find a way of avoiding a heavy impact; certainly in sports betting. The regulations that have been put in are not so bad. Of course, there are blocks on television and radio, but there are still other ways to advertise.
For me, the message is clear. It’s a message not only in Belgium. You have to think how you can advertise without offending certain members of society and avoiding conflict with regulators. Belgium has been reasonable with its regulation but the message is there: we want the industry to be more cautious. That is the lesson.
If there is one item that needs to be discussed at ICE in the next two years, it’s not only how do we get very nice CSR policies, it’s how do we put these into practice when it comes to marketing and advertising.
With tough regulation of online casino operators, how fair is criticism that regulators are favouring established land-based companies?
You need to take into consideration the particular situation of Belgium. We have a license-plus system, which means a land-based operator also has the license to operate online. So it’s often the same company and some online casinos can still promote their land-based activities. Even a company like Unibet has a physical booth in stadiums; Ladbrokes has a substantial number of agencies in Belgium.
Land-based is not affected in the same way, but it’s not discriminating between two types of companies, because of the license-plus system.
Are the advertising regulations all Belgian operators have to worry about, or is more legislation under consideration?
This is only part of what’s going to happen. Belgium has several other measures that are going through Parliament. The whole discussion that we have in Belgium, given the fight between one operator and all the others about the way the market will go, concerns prohibiting the combining of activities online. That is, in my view, something that can have a much more dramatic impact on the market if there is no legislative solution.
Currently, there is a lot of debate in Parliament on further regulating the market. By the end of the year, we will have a better picture of what the restructuring of the Belgian gambling market online and offline will be. People are more concerned about these issues than the advertising regulations.
These will all be voted for before the Christmas recess. There is also the restriction of certain machines and the reorganisation of the horseracing betting sector, so there is a lot currently under discussion in Parliament. Advertising regulation has been reasonable but I think the key element will be the question of whether you will be able to offer various different online activities under one website.