Everyone’s had a conversation about winning the lottery. Among the pipe dreams of early retirement, a giant house (with customary swimming pool – inside and out) and far-away trips to distant relatives, come insincere declarations of charity and goodwill, protected by odds of over 45 million to one.
Now consider whether you would so freely discuss – with your closest family or most judgemental friends – what you’d do if you won big on an online slot game, had a lucky streak on live roulette or bluffed your way to a fortune playing poker?
Back in December 2018, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) cleared National Lottery operator Camelot Lotteries UK of promoting gambling as a solution to financial concerns.
The complaint regarded three versions of the same television campaign, entitled “Amazing Starts Here”. It was produced for Camelot by communications agency Adam & Eve DDB – the company behind the John Lewis Christmas ads.
"Excluding the National Lottery from the wider industry conversation about responsible gambling is like choosing not to include the Queen in a discussion about the Royal Family’s cost to the taxpayer"
The longest cut of the 120-second film tells the story of a family clearly struggling to balance the home life of a mother with the working life of her fisherman partner, Colin.
It begins with Colin leaving for work with the family still asleep and proceeds to intersect his time on the boat with scenes of her daily routine with the kids, complete with longing stares into the distance.
After missing his wife’s phone calls and her mysterious trip to the solicitor’s office, Colin returns to an empty home and a letter on the mantelpiece. Despite his gruelling shift at sea, he rouses the energy to sprint down the road towards the front door of a different, much bigger, house.
The door opens and his wife reveals that she has bought the property and holds up a lottery ticket. “We won?” he asks, “We won”, she confirms (spoiler alert).
You might be wondering why wasted 150 words describing an advert that you could just watch online. In fact, I’d highly recommend you do that before reading on. Simply go to YouTube and search for “Amazing Starts Here”.
The ASA complainants challenged whether the advert(s) suggested that participation in a lottery could be a solution to financial concerns. It was not upheld.
Camelot stated that the new home was a “modest family home in the same village as the original home” and that “the sadness conveyed by the couple in the early scenes was the product of the family’s physical separation from one another when he was at work on the fishing trawler”.
Even disregarding the fact that different properties in the same location can have significant differences in price, the ASA’s own BCAP code for lottery marketing contains the following condition: “[Advertisers must not] suggest that participating in a lottery can provide an escape from personal, professional or educational problems such as loneliness or depression (18.2.2).”
Now imagine exactly the same advert, but this time with a different ending. In this version, the brand being promoted isn’t the National Lottery but an online casino.
As Colin reaches the new house, instead of producing a lottery ticket, his wife raises a laptop. She slowly turns the screen to reveal the words “MEGA JACKPOT WIN” upon a background of flashing slot reels and a classic arcade soundtrack.
Do you think the ASA would clear this version too? The message is the same, the angle is the same and the implied causeeffect relationship is identical, the only difference is how the money that bought the house was attained. I’m confident that my director’s cut version would not only attract more complaints, but the complaints would more likely be upheld.
But enough of the assumptions, let’s look at the evidence.
PARTICIPATION, ODDS AND COSTS
According to a Gambling Commission survey from April 2018 entitled “Gambling participation: activities and mode of access”, the top three most popular gambling activities over a four-week period in the UK were National Lottery draws (26.8%), scratchcards (10.4%) and other lotteries (11.1%).
In contrast, the proportion of respondents in the same period who had played “online slot machine style/instant win” games was just 1.1%, with the total figure across all forms of online gambling and betting standing at 23.7%.
Such is the huge influence of the National Lottery on survey results than some tables actually omit its statistics to provide a more balanced dataset.
"Could the National Lottery’s entire brand identity be in breach of a fundamental ASA rule? The suggestion that crossing your fingers can positively influence your luck surely counts as a cultural belief"
One argument in favour of the lottery is that it is so cheap and infrequent. But even if you were to ignore potential issues surrounding the lottery as a gateway to other forms of gambling, the regular ticket price – combined with the sheer improbability of winning – can cause costs to quickly escalate.
There are three core draw-based games that Camelot facilitates: Lotto, EuroMillions and Thunderball, each with different ticket prices and odds attached. The prior two draws also come with the “HotPicks” side games.
If you were to play each of these five games for one week, buying one entry for every instance, your total weekly spend would be £18. Over the course of a year, it’d rise to £936.
But what if you just played Lotto? One line, twice a week, £2 per play. That’s £4 per week and £208 per year.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that the odds of winning the Lotto jackpot are 45,057,474 to one. Based on 104 instances of the game per year, you’d have to play a single line, twice a week for 433,245 years for winning to become a statistical certainty.
Assuming you could actually live that long, prices didn’t rise and humanity was not extinct, you’d have then spent more than £90 million on tickets – better hope it’s a rollover!
Fortunately the National Lottery also provides a variety of fixed-odds instant win games – mostly scratchcards – both in shops and online.
These games are promoted with odds as low as three to one and range in price from just 25p all the way up to £10. They are what lottery sympathisers, as I’ll now call them, often choose to disregard when writing off the game as low cost for good causes.
The National Lottery website currently offers a total of 52 instant win games, with 44% of them priced at £3 or more per play – higher than the cost of a single Lotto ticket. And you only have to be 16 to play.
Excluding the National Lottery from the wider industry conversation about responsible gambling is like choosing not to include the Queen in a discussion about the Royal Family’s cost to the taxpayer.
WHAT THE LOTTERY GETS AWAY WITH
Fishermen aside, the National Lottery has a colourful recent history in terms of high profile marketing. One campaign you may remember, entitled #PleaseNotThem, played on the idea that it might be better if some people didn’t win the jackpot.
A series of ads containing the nation’s favourite pantomime villains, including Noel Edmonds, James Blunt and Piers Morgan, culminated with the narrator’s impassioned plea to viewers: “Anyone can win with Lotto. Please, don’t let it be him.”
This is a direct call to action for people to gamble to prevent somebody else winning, as if picking six random numbers in a game of luck will negatively affect the odds of another player, like some perverse anticelebrity karma.
Literally translated, the message is: “We don’t like some of our players. Please buy tickets so they don’t win even though we know it makes no difference.”
I wonder if that tagline would have passed the ASA and the Gambling Commission?
But it is on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where believe many of the National Lottery’s fundamental breaches of gambling regulations occur.
I have summarised the main issues below alongside examples of actual National Lottery social media interactions from the past six weeks (as of January 2019).
WISHING OF LUCK
The concept of luck being an entity that can be shared and accumulated is not only untrue, but also dangerous. Just as there is no karma to prevent an egocentric celebrity winning millions of pounds, there is not a threshold at which a person’s luck cashes in.
Phrases such as “sending lots of luck your way” and “hope your luck changes soon” (see examples of the National Lottery’s engagement with players on Facebook on the opposite page) only embolden this flawed assumption, leaving vulnerable players with the belief that a big win is just around the corner.
PUSHING CULTURAL BELIEFS ABOUT LUCK
It’s hard to think of the National Lottery without thinking about the brand’s famous crossed fingers logo, now effortlessly incorporated in emoji form into almost every one of its social media posts.
But let’s consider this: “Advertisements for lotteries must not exploit cultural beliefs or traditions about gambling or luck (ASA Code for Lottery Marketing.18.8).”
Could the National Lottery’s entire brand identity be in breach of a fundamental ASA rule?
The suggestion that crossing your fingers can positively influence your luck surely counts as a cultural belief.
Innocently, you could argue that the passive use of crossed fingers is harmless as it reflects the randomness of the draw.
However, I’m not sure this holds up when you have Camelot staff on Twitter telling players: “I’m sorry to hear that you’ve not had much luck, Chris. You never know when that may change though, keep those fingers crossed! ^Kane…” (https://bit.ly/2RVZA1s).
What’s that - crossing your fingers didn’t work for you? Time to try positive thinking: “That’s the spirit! It takes just one lucky ticket to win big, so believe it and achieve it! Best of Luck! ^Mario…” (https://bit.ly/2ML2Nva).
SUGGESTING THE INEVITABILITY OF WINNING
The only thing close to inevitable in the lottery is that you won’t win the jackpot, not that you will.
Repeated use of phrases such as “your turn next” and “your turn to win big” suggest that winning isn’t as much down to luck, but a matter of simply waiting patiently for your time to come.
The most responsible response to those questioning the lottery jackpot’s winnability is to acknowledge how improbable it is and advise players to play only what they can afford without any real expectation.
It is certainly not acceptable to blatantly ignore the odds and proliferate the idea that if they only keep spending for long enough, they’ll find success.
LINKING CONTINUED PLAY TO RESILIENCE
As you diligently wait for your day in the sun, you might begin to doubt whether it will in fact ever be your turn. Perhaps it’s not as inevitable as you’ve been led to believe.
You turn to Facebook to express your dismay and are presented with messages of encouragement: keep going, keep buying. You’ve got to be in it to win it, after all. A call to arms in the face of adversity.
Yet this is a further breach of ASA guidelines: “[Advertisements must not] portray participation in a lottery in a context of toughness or link it to resilience or recklessness (ASA Code for Lottery Marketing.18.2.8).”
And also: “[Advertisements must not] portray, condone or encourage gambling behaviour that is socially irresponsible or could lead to financial, social or emotional harm (ASA Code for Lottery Marketing. 18.2.1).”
TRIVIALISATION OF GAMBLING
In February 2018, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) announced tougher standards on industry approaches to problem gambling. These came into effect on 2 April last year, and are used by the ASA when considering complaints.
One particular concern of the new standards was the trivialisation of gambling, such as encouraging repetitive play.
While the lottery may not directly suggest that players should buy a ticket for every draw in its advertising, phrasing such as the aforementioned “in it to win it” and “please not them” do (not so) subtly encourage regular and repeat purchases.
Plus, let’s not forget, the National Lottery even allows you to pay Lotto, Thunderball and EuroMillions draws by direct debit, with a continuous unlimited rolling option.
Can you imagine what would happen if a casino offered an option to play 10 hands of blackjack a week, paid for in the same way?
WHY IT GETS AWAY WITH IT
The lottery is to gambling what shandy is to alcohol: a diluted version of an addictive habit, carrying less risk and judgement.
But the facts suggest otherwise. The facts suggest that the National Lottery is the most frequently participated-in form of gambling in the UK. The facts suggest that, just like other forms of gaming – perhaps even more so – players will lose in the long run.
So how does the lottery still hold its status as a national institution and why is scrutiny of its marketing protected by a veil of hypocrisy and public affection?
There is no denying that funds raised by the National Lottery have benefited thousands of organisations, charities and projects throughout the country.
But let’s not beat around the bush, this is gambling industry money. As Stewart Roberts from Haircuts4Homeless states in a recent lottery advert: “I don’t think people buy lottery tickets to help good causes, but playing it helps us do what we do.”
The work the National Lottery does for good causes is commendable, but it should not exempt the organisation from responsible gambling regulations. It should not, also, be mistaken for the primary reason people play. Nobody buys a ticket in the hope that someone else will win.
"The lottery is to gambling what shandy is to alcohol: a diluted version of an addictive habit, carrying less risk and judgement"
LONG-TERM LICENCE PROTECTION
The Gambling Commission was criticised last year for awarding Camelot a 14-year National Lottery licence back in 2012, amid concerns that the amount of revenue going to good causes had fallen by 15%.
The long-term licence acts to protect Camelot from certain regulatory standards, such as the Gambling Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising, produced by the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG). According to the IGRG: “The Industry Code therefore covers all forms of licensed gambling in Britain, including society lotteries. The current exception to this is the National Lottery whose licence does not carry the same requirement and which is presently excluded from the remit of the Industry Code.”
In response to the reduced donations to good causes, Camelot’s chief executive, Nigel Railton, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that the firm hoped to boost sales of the main Lotto draw and instant games by £400m over the next four years. This would in turn generate an extra £60m to £80m per year for good causes.
In other words, the boss of the licensed National Lottery operator was at a Parliamentary hearing to discuss why the game was no longer funding projects to the extent it used to. As a solution, he promised to get the public to gamble another £100m per year for four years to bridge the shortfall.
WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?
The igaming industry is not perfect, but you only have to look at the size and frequency of the fines handed out to big name casinos and sportsbooks to see the consequences of regulatory non-compliance.
"The work the National Lottery does for good causes is commendable, but it should not exempt the organisation from responsible gambling regulations"
Besides a relatively small £1.2m fine received by Camelot in 2018 for mostly administrative mistakes, the Commission and other regulators have been surprisingly shy of challenging the National Lottery’s questionable approach to marketing.
Upon receiving the fine, Camelot apologised and agreed to make a payment to its Good Causes scheme in lieu of a financial penalty – a scheme into which it already pays £30m each week.
£1.2m was a drop in the ocean, but will the storm ever come? I’ll keep my fingers crossed.