GVC, the online gambling firm behind Foxy Bingo, has been fined £350,000 for “repeatedly misleading consumers” with offers of free bonuses, on the same day that regulators announced a crackdown on gambling adverts.
The fine comes as GVC is in the process of taking over Ladbrokes in a deal worth up to £4bn that would create the UK’s largest gambling company.
It marks the start of a tougher regime for gambling ads, as rules governing promotions such as a campaign featuring the disembodied head of the actor Ray Winstone urging gamblers to “Bet in-play … NOW!” were tightened.
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The stricter rulebook will also forbid adverts that appeal to problem gamblers or “play fast and loose” with free bet offers.
The Competition and Markets Authority is already investigating the fairness of so-called “free bets”, and announced this year that three leading firms had agreed to change their policy.
Winstone’s days of encouraging punters to bet during live matches appear to be over as the advertising regulator targets ads that appeal to problem gamblers.
The two bodies that set the code that UK advertisers must abide by – the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of AdvertisingPractice – highlighted ads that “exploit people’s vulnerabilities or play fast and loose with eye-catching free bet and bonus offers”.
Top of the list is a ban on ads that “create an inappropriate sense of urgency, like those including ‘bet now!’ offers during live events”.
This will mean the end of so-called “in-play” betting offers calling on viewers to gamble as they watch a live event, of which Winstone is the most well-known face for the online gambling company Bet365.
The new rules include curbing the “trivialisation of gambling”, such as by encouraging repetitive play, and ending undue emphasis on giving punters “money motives” for gambling.
Also banned will be ads that give an “irresponsible perception of risk or control”, such as by telling viewers they have a risk-free deposit or bonus.
Gambling companies will also have to be more responsible when they offer free bets and bonuses, which are often advertised as if there are no strings attached.
“We won’t tolerate gambling ads that exploit people’s vulnerabilities or play fast and loose with eye-catching free bet and bonus offers,” said Shahriar Coupal, the director of the two committees.
While rules don’t come into effect until 2 April, online casino firm GVC has already fallen foul of existing regulations.
The Gambling Commission, which regulates the industry, on Wednesday fined GVC £350,000 for repeatedly defying a 2016 ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority that adverts for its Bwin website were misleading.
The promotion offered gamblers a free bet worth up to £30 when they deposited money in a Bwin account but a customer complained they could not collect their free bonus until they had staked a further £102.
The ASA upheld the complaint, rejecting GVC’s argument that restrictions on the offer were clearly set out in the terms and conditions.
Despite the ruling, websites owned by GVC repeated the transgression a further seven times, the Gambling Commission said.
Richard Watson, programme director for the regulator, said: “This fine should serve as a warning to all gambling businesses that we will not hesitate to take action against those who mislead consumers with bonus offers or fail to ensure they are correctly licensed.”
Last year the Gambling Commission said more than 2 million people in the UK were either problem gamblers or at risk of addiction. The industry regulator said the government and industry were not doing enough to tackle the problem.