Gambling firms in hot water over 'fake news' affiliate ads

Ladbrokes, Sky Vegas and others have been reprimanded over articles that 'targeted vulnerable people.'

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 13 Sep 2017

The web has created a wealth of opportunities for marketers. But it’s also created its fair share of challenges, as several of Britain’s top online gambling companies have found out of late. 

Earlier this month a Guardian investigation claimed some bookies were paying commission to online ‘affiliates’ that were profiting from giving punters dodgy tips. And today Ladbrokes, Sky Bet, 888 and Casumo were censured by the Advertising Standards Authority over ‘fake news’ ads that targeted ‘vulnerable people.’

Under the title, ‘On Their Wedding Night He Delivered A Secret She Wasn’t Ready For. The Result Will Have You In Tears,’ the near-identical ads all tell the story of ‘William’, who was £130,000 in debt because of having to pay for his wife’s medical bills. But after discovering an online ad for a gambling site, he made hundreds of thousands of pounds, allowing him to pay off his debts and also take his wife on her dream trip to Bora Bora.

The stories were hosted on sites with names like www.uk.24hoursnews.co, which seem to exist specifically for the purpose of hosting affiliate links. They are clearly fake (unless there were four Williams who were all inexplicably lucky gamblers with ill wives keen to go to Bora Bora). The ads also contravened ASA regulations as they suggested gambling as a means of escaping personal problems, and because they weren’t clearly labelled as marketing communications.

For those not in the know, affiliate marketing is a form of advertising where publishers (or ‘affiliates’) post tracker links on their website, and earn cash when their readers click on them and buy something (or lose their money in an online casino...). These affiliates operate at arm’s length from the brands they are punting, often separated by at least one or two intermediaries like media buying agencies and affiliate networks.

Most of the bookies that got a telling off today were understandably keen to distance themselves from the ads. 888’s spokesperson said it removed the advertorial as soon as it was made aware of it and has terminated its relationship with the agency responsible. Sky Betting and Gaming said the same, reiterating its plan (announced after the Guardian investigation) to ditch affiliates, ‘to give us more control over our marketing outputs and ensure instances like this don’t happen again.’

Ladbrokes was especially strident. ‘Nobody in Ladbrokes Coral believes that this sort of "fake news" marketing has a place in the sector,’ a spokesperson said. ‘We have been reducing the number of affiliates we work with as well as clamping down hard on anyone using our name without our knowledge in a bid to curtail this sort of activity going forward.’

Yesterday afternoon, apparently unbeknown to Ladbrokes, a similar affiliate site called 365dailynews.co published another version of the ad with links to the betting firm’s bingo brand Gala, underlining how difficult it can be to control your brand in these circumstances. (At the time of writing, Casumo hadn’t responded to a request for comment).

The debacle illustrates the kinds of challenges brands are having when advertising online. Faced with dozens of options, from sponsored content to pay-per-click ads or social media, outsourcing it all to ‘experts’ seems an almost unavoidable necessity for many brands. But as today’s news demonstrates, that can come with real reputational risks.

It’s not the only bad news bookies have received today. According to the FT, the government is considering cutting the maximum stake they can charge on fixed-odds betting terminals - dubbed the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling – to as low as £2, from their current level of £100. Politicians and campaigners have got gambling firms in their sights. Now they face a high-stakes battle to remain profitable.

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