New AGCO advertising standards create industry confusion 

September 6, 2023 10:48 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports
September 6, 2023 10:48 AM
  • Mark Keast, CDC Gaming Reports

At least one operator is more than a little confused by the updated Alcohol and Gaming of Ontario’s (AGCO) Advertising Standards, announced last week. 

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The new restrictions will come into effect Feb. 28, 2024. 

The AGCO is prohibiting the use of athletes in internet-gaming advertising and marketing in Ontario. Standards have also been strengthened to restrict the use of celebrities “who would likely be expected to appeal to minors,” the AGCO said in a statement. Igaming ads, like the ones for BetMGM featuring Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid and retired sports stars Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Garnett, for example, will soon no longer be seen in Ontario. 

The AGCO held consultations on its proposal to ban ads and took in submissions from a range of stakeholders. AGCO Registrar and CEO Tom Mungham told an audience at the Canadian Gaming Summit in Toronto in June that the agency received 38 responses to that consultation, from igaming and land-based operators to the charitable-gaming sector and associations in the health sector, like the Canadian Mental Health Association. 

More specifically, the additions to the AGCO Standards for Internet Gaming are (bolded): 

2.03 – Advertising, marketing materials and communications shall not target high-risk, underage or self-excluded persons to participate in lottery schemes, shall not include underage individuals, and shall not knowingly be communicated or sent to high-risk players. (Also applicable to Gaming-Related Suppliers) 

Requirements – At a minimum, materials and communications shall not: 

  1. Be based on themes, or use language, intended to appeal primarily to minors. 
  1. Appear on billboards or other outdoor displays that are directly adjacent to schools or other primarily youth-oriented locations.  
  1. Use or contain cartoon figures, symbols, role models, social media influencers, celebrities, or entertainers who would likely be expected to appeal to minors. [This requirement has been changed]
  1. Use active or retired athletes, who have an agreement or arrangement made directly or indirectly between an athlete and an operator or gaming-related supplier, in advertising and marketing except for the exclusive purpose of advocating for responsible gambling practices. [This requirement is new]
  1. Use individuals who are, or appear to be, minors to promote gaming. 
  1. Appear in media and venues, including on websites, and in digital or online media, directed primarily to minors, or where most of the audience is reasonably expected to be minors. 
  1. Exploit the susceptibilities, aspirations, credulity, inexperience or lack of knowledge of all potentially high-risk persons, or otherwise extoll the virtues of gaming. 
  1. Entice or attract potentially high-risk players. Instead, measures shall be in place to limit marketing communications to all known high-risk players. [This requirement has been changed] 

The AGCO says it plans to issue additional guidance in the coming weeks and that will be welcome by people in the industry.  

“I was quite surprised at the heavy handedness of the restrictions as announced by the AGCO a couple of days ago,” said Aly Lalani, head of marketing at BetRegal. “I’m not totally sure I understand exactly what they mean. They seem to paint with an awfully wide brush. How is it possible to say ‘social influencers’ are part of the restriction? How exactly is a ‘social influencer’ defined? Is it follower count? Is it content? Is it follower demographics? 

“My opinion is that there are a number of operators who are sitting on the fence with regards to the realistic feasibility of growing a successful Ontario business, primarily because of the tremendous competitive influence, and the dominance of casino in terms of the really important KPIs,” Lalani said. “Restrictions like these will help push some of those operators over the fence and I think we’ll see a trickle of brands choosing not to pursue Ontario.  

“While some would say moves like this level the playing field, I would disagree and say moves like this are actually just making the playing field smaller and forcing operators to rely on more traditional marketing channels where the bigger brands’ budget dominance will be even more obvious. Restrictions like this really limit operators’ ability to be creative marketers.” 

One of the big critiques has been the volume of igaming ads on television now. But as Canadian Gaming Association president and CEO Paul Burns said, gaming ads represent just five percent of the advertising on TV. There is a need for more clarity in the industry, as the news sinks in, he added. 

“We all want to make sure there is a healthy relationship with the customers,” he said. “I think the request for a compliance guidance on the standards is absolutely necessary for operators to better understand, so they have the tools and clarity to comply, which everyone wants to do. The AGCO needs to help create that.  

“From ‘primarily’ appealing to minors to ‘likely’ appealing, what does that mean? Now let’s figure out how everyone can comply. As we all know, a lot of money is invested in advertising and marketing campaigns, so the industry wants to know how they can effectively produce marketing programs that comply. 

“No one wants to go and create a campaign and the find out they can’t do what they wanted to do after the fact,” he said. “The business needs certainty going forward.” 

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, which ran ads featuring Maple Leafs captain John Tavares and retired goalie Curtis Joseph in the past, said in a statement they will ensure all their advertising “will continue to be produced in alignment with AGCO standards on marketing.” 

The Tavares partnership expired. However, the Joseph ad was for responsible gambling, promoting the PlaySmart program. 

Amanda Brewer, country manager for Canada of Kindred Group, said the news wasn’t surprising and it cleans up any possible integrity issues involving athletes and the sports they represent. 

“The AGCO still needs to provide clarification on what ‘athlete’ or ‘celebrity’ or ‘role model’ or ‘influencer’ means. So until further information lands, this is a bit premature,” she said. 

Unibet doesn’t use athletes in their advertising, so the change doesn’t impact them.  

Brewer also added that no operator has been fined for violating the advertising standards specific to responsible gambling or appealing to minors since the market launched in April 2022. 

Nic Sulsky, chief commercial officer of PointsBet Canada, in a statement commended the AGCO for setting the new standards after months of rumors.  

As a part of the evolving regulated igaming industry in Ontario, we are in full support of continued progress toward a truly leveled playing field for all operators. And one of the best ways to build toward that is with clear and concise rules, so we all can properly develop and execute effective marketing strategies that will foster a healthy and responsible gaming ecosystem,” he said.