Is banning gambling ads censorship? You bet

For those of a certain age, like me, you only need to mention the words ‘shake’ and ‘vac’ in the same breath before one of advertising’s greatest earworms plays on loop in your brain: ‘Do the Shake n’ Vac and put the freshness back, do the Shake n’ Vac and put the freshness back…’, all accompanied by the mental image of a woman in a long skirt dancing about with a vacuum cleaner. The advert played for years, and even people too young to remember it have doubtless picked up the tune through some form of cultural osmosis. And yet, I have never bought Shake n’ Vac. Why would I want to scatter powder imbued with some artificial fragrance on to my carpet and then hoover it up? It sounds like a terrible idea.

Nostalgia apart, the point is that adverts can be memorable and increase product awareness enormously without automatically leading to extra sales. This point is pertinent because the government is seriously considering curbing gambling adverts before the 9pm watershed – that is, during TV hours when kids might be watching. The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, told the House of Commons yesterday that her two boys, aged 10 and 12, can ‘recite just about every gambling advert there is’. But so what? Does she really think they are going to bankrupt themselves and the family through betting? How would they manage such a feat when gambling is illegal for children?

Gambling adverts can often be seriously annoying. I could certainly live without the floating head of actor Ray Winstone popping up and offering the latest odds during the halftime break of any football match on ITV or Sky. ‘In-play with Ray’ can go away. But banning gambling adverts because they might entice kids to bet is even sillier than banning branded cigarette packs because they might entice kids to smoke.

Only a small minority of people in the UK have a problem with gambling to the extent that it threatens their finances or becomes a mental-health problem. And the problem isn’t even growing. As Christopher Snowdon pointed out recently: ‘There are fewer people gambling and no change in the rate of problem gambling. The rise of online gambling, the introduction of fixed-odds betting terminals and a dramatic increase in gambling advertising has had no effect on rates of problem gambling.’

So what could possibly justify yet more draconian measures against gambling? Companies should be free to advertise their products unless there is a seriously good reason not to – and no such problem has been demonstrated. Most of those who gamble do so at a level that amounts to harmless entertainment. Given the pitifully low levels of excitement in England football matches recently, anything that can add a bit of spice to proceedings is to be welcomed. But most of us recognise that, in the long run, gambling is a mug’s game: the house (almost) always wins.

Meanwhile, something much more important is being lost: the right to free speech. By banning adverts, the government is deciding for us what we can and cannot see. We will be denied the right to make up our own minds. Just because the ‘speech’ in this case is companies offering their wares doesn’t make it any less galling or illiberal that the government is deciding to ban it. This recourse to censorship is far more dangerous than any betting advert.

Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.

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