888.com Halts Certain UK Advertisements Amid Controversy and Criticism

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The online casino company 888.com has decided to pull several of its advertisements from prominent spots including London’s extensive transport network. This decision follows a considerable backlash concerning the adverts’ tone, which also led to criticism of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, for his administration’s approval of such advertisements.

The controversy arises just as London prepares for its mayoral election, slated to occur in less than a week. Susan Hall, Khan’s Conservative opponent in the upcoming elections, alongside a respected clinician and a group of peers, has expressed confusion and concern over Transport for London’s (TfL) decision to greenlight this particular advertising campaign.

Historically, TfL has had a stringent approach towards advertisements, having previously banned ads promoting foods like artisanal cheese and the iconic Wimbledon strawberries and cream, citing their promotion of unhealthy eating habits. However, despite Khan’s manifesto pledge in 2021 to prohibit gambling advertisements on London’s transport services, TfL has continued to allow ads from betting and online casino companies while awaiting the findings of an independent review assessing the relationship between advertising and gambling-related harm.

Recently, 888.com launched an aggressive advertising initiative across the London Underground, buses, trains, and some black taxis, bearing provocative slogans like “This carriage is now a casino” and “Fancy a spin?”. However, following inquiries for a response from the Guardian, 888.com announced last Friday that it would be pulling some of these adverts, though it did not specify which ones. The company stated that the adverts could be “interpreted in a different manner to the brand position we aim for”, indicating a misalignment with their intended brand messaging.

This backtrack appears to stem from the nature of the promotional content which, according to NHS survey data, is linked to a higher incidence of gambling-related harm compared to other types of gambling activities. TfL defended their approval by stating that the adverts complied with the broadcasting codes and their policies, which mandate that ads should not trivialize gambling.

The inconsistency in advertisement approvals has sparked debates across the city, with Hall pointing out the apparent contradiction in banning adverts for certain food items while appearing lenient towards promotions involving potentially harmful activities like vaping and gambling. “We need a common sense, clear approach to this, not one that allows the mayor to play favorites,” Hall remarked.

The controversy has also drawn attention from Prof. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic and a noted authority on addiction in Britain, who criticized the mayor after encountering the adverts. Moreover, a letter from the House of Lords group, Peers for Gambling Reform, criticized the aggressive nature of the ads and called out the inconsistency with Khan’s own pledges.

While the review of TfL’s gambling ad policy continues, gambling firms, including 888.com—chaired by Labour peer Jonathan Mendelsohn—have been able to conduct high-profile campaigns. These campaigns have generated nearly £1.8 million in advertising revenue for the transport network over the past two years.

888.com, known for owning William Hill—a company that received the highest ever penalty of £19.2 million from the Gambling Commission in 2023—has a history of significant fines. In 2022, it faced a £9.4 million penalty for severe failings that led to substantial customer losses during the Covid crisis.

In light of the recent backlash and ensuing debate over advertisement policies, more than 80 councils across the UK have implemented measures to curb gambling advertising. The debate underscores a broader issue of how gambling advertising is regulated and the impact it may have on public health and safety.

A London Labour spokesperson stated that City Hall has commissioned an independent review to better understand harmful gambling, which will be carefully considered by Khan if re-elected. Meanwhile, an 888 spokesperson reiterated their commitment to adhering to advertising standards and regulations, acknowledging that their latest campaign might have been misinterpreted and promising changes to future advertising strategies.

This episode highlights the complex interplay between public policy, corporate advertising strategies, and societal values, reflecting ongoing debates about responsible advertising and its regulation in urban spaces.