Offensive Sportsbet ad cleared despite industry double standards

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The latest Sportsbet ad features controversial NRL player Todd Carney sending up his urination incident (Screenshot via YouTube)

Sportsbet have released another tasteless ad which is offending viewers, but due to loopholes in industry codes the ad has been cleared, writes Tom McCarthy.

IN MY LAST PIECE for this publication – some five years ago – I bemoaned the state of sports-betting advertising in Australia, contending that there was a clear double standard at play when compared against the more subtle messaging used by the alcohol industry.

A recent ad by Sportsbet has inspired me to ask why, despite apparent efforts to clip their wings, the gambling companies behind these ads seem more emboldened than ever to promote their product using antisocial marketing.

The ad in question is part of a campaign in which Sportsbet claim their new app is so easy to use, it’s “foolproof”. Evidently, Sportsbet wasn’t satisfied at the arguably offensive level of irony inherent in an app used to separate gamblers from hundreds of millions of dollars being marketed as foolproof. Nor were they content with the level of offence achieved by the depiction of vegans and social activists as aimlessly indignant, unkempt bludgers. Their preferred level was only found at reprising the disgraced former NRL star Todd Carney in a scene implying the re-enactment of the incident that ended his career: urinating in his own mouth.

Whether and to what degree we are each offended by this depiction will, of course, vary. But to get some sense for community sentiment, it’s worth recalling that in 2014, the historically forgiving NRL system found Carney’s performance sufficiently distasteful to warrant bringing an end to the superstar’s $3 million career. And in its re-enactment, the ad has already been the subject of complaints by an audience who are ‘offended, appalled and disgusted’.

Time will reveal whether it’s pungent enough to take the record for eliciting the highest number of complaints in a calendar year, which is already held by Sportsbet for its 2018 depiction of “manscaping”. All of which begs the question: how do the gambling companies – and seemingly they alone – get away with such regular deployment of offensive ad content?

It appears that the answer lies in the fact that when it comes to advertising, sports-betting enjoys a highly favourable set of conditions uniquely enabling it to not only engage in but also profit from offending their audience.

When it comes to our national advertising standards, you might be surprised to find that the Government only plays a very minor role in setting the relevant codes of practice and even less of a role enforcing them. It is actually an advertising industry group, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) – of which Sportsbet is a member – that developed the various advertising codes one might expect the “foolproof” ad to violate.

But the Ad Standards Community Panel (a separate industry-funded “independent” organisation responsible for adjudicating audience complaints) has already cleared the ad of any contravention despite what was a laundry-list complaint.

It is difficult to find any obvious errors in the Panel’s assessment of the ad against the relevant codes. On the other hand, the decision is littered with examples of contentious interpretations. For example, the Panel’s finding that ‘the advertisement is not encouraging or condoning antisocial behaviour’ seems a questionable take on paying Todd Carney to feature in an ad to virtually re-enact the time he was filmed urinating in his own mouth.

If you suspect a system which finds this ad complies with all applicable standards must suffer from a major shortcoming, then perhaps it is this: the codes are so general in their expression that advertising content which presumably falls foul of the intended spirit can nonetheless be successfully defended against complaints.

But whilst a meagre application of the codes might explain how they get away with it, it does not explain why sports-betting companies seem to have something of a monopoly over the most offensive ads on our screens. It is true that the alcohol industry’s specific code would have likely precluded it from having Todd Carney (or anyone else for that matter) depict an alcohol-fuelled act of public indecency. The code applying to sports-betting – despite it arguably being a closely-related industry – does not replicate such restrictions, meaning Sportsbet had free swing at the incident.

Generally, however, there is nothing preventing other industries from dealing in the same levels of offence being used by sports-betting. The explanation rather seems to come in sports-betting’s unique marketing message, which is not so much “buy this product” or “subscribe to this view”, but rather “try to beat us”, which enables it to ditch the generally sensible virtue of social congeniality, instead obnoxiously provoking its audience into a contest through offending, irritating and mocking.

If the formula being deployed by sports-betting has revealed a blind spot in the codes or their application, it does not follow that change or even review is imminent. Due to the self-regulating framework, complaints seem virtually impossible (or at least highly impractical) to escalate to a forum truly independent of the advertising industry, like an administrative tribunal or a court. And, in terms of its involvement in developing and enforcing standards, the Government’s light-touch approach seems now so entrenched that it has limited ability to intervene.

Perhaps at this stage, our best hope for change is that the advertising industry proves itself to be truly self-regulating, initiating some tweaks to the codes and how they are interpreted, irrespective of whether they upset sports-betting’s modus operandi. Although, considering I first took aim at these ads five years ago, I won’t be holding my breath.

Tom McCarthy is a corporate analyst with a part-time hobby of picking apart Australia’s peculiar relationship with gambling.

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