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What price corporate responsibility when a whole sector pursues profit indifferent to the harm it is causing?

The Times is to be commended for an expose today(£) of the gambling industry, the damage it leads to and the way it uses its muscle and goodies to compromise policy makers.

Much of the critical commentary on the gambling industry concerns innovations – like fixed odds betting and ‘bet in play’ – which are precisely designed to speed up the stimulus response drive that turns gambling from a bit of fun into a dangerous obsession. But alongside this there is another, complementary and equally insidious, attempt to make more people into habitual gamblers.

I am not opposed to gambling per se. I bet every few weeks to enliven my viewing of a sporting event or because I want to make a little money out of a hunch (as I did last year by betting on a Conservative general election victory). Amongst my friends even this occasional flutter marks me out from the vast majority who either don’t bet or keep it strictly to rollover Lotteries or the Grand National. There is nothing ‘normal’ about betting and as a regular habit it should be seen as an indulgence at best and more likely a problem. But my kind of occasional flutter does not provide sufficient return on investment for a growing and greedy industry.

Which is why the gambling sector is in the midst of a concerted and deeply irresponsible campaign to overturn the view of gambling as a pointless frivolity that can become dangerous and replace it with a new pro-gambling social norm. They want the statement ‘no, I don’t gamble’ to be as unusual among certain groups as ‘no, I don’t drink’. One of the groups they are most focused on is young men.

Observe the adverts – and watching sport on TV these are just about the only commercials you will see – and the industry’s utter determination to make gambling an inherent and benign part of being a bloke is clear. Ladbroke’s adverts feature a group of men all of whom are gamblers and whose approach to gambling has become a core and attractive part of their personality. Paddy Power’s nauseatingly sexist offerings are similarly determined to embed gambling as an inherent part of being a bloke. Problem gamblers are solitary and sad but in advert world all gamblers are sociable and popular.

Bet 365 makes its contribution to the unspoken conspiracy by choosing as its front man that ultimate bloke-ish icon – Ray Winstone. The Times might itself want to note Sky’s betting strategy which involves using its much loved football pundits as gambling persuaders. And, on the subject of sport, let’s not forget how corrupt gambling has compromised the integrity of sports like cricket and tennis.

I don’t watch daytime TV, but people who do tell me that you can find there a similarly concerted advertising attempt to hook women on to the solitary and risky activity of online gambling by making it look like a fun basis for socialising.

I recently wrote an outspoken piece for Management Today about how CSR debates so often fail to address the really hard and systemic questions – like pay differentials, corporate tax dodging and unsustainable consumption. I have to admit that the content of many CSR events in which I have participated have made me want to ‘bite my own face’. Added to that list of ‘wicked issues’ should be the collective action problem of a whole industry whose core business model is socially harmful.

I have no doubt that if ever gambling executives or those who invest in gambling have qualms about their attempt to use addiction and social pressure to drive profits, they say to themselves ‘well, everyone else in the industry is doing it…’.  The fact that the combined efforts of the industry to show ethical concern by agreeing codes and funding ‘independent’ think tanks are so transparently inauthentic underlines the problem. If you are doing harm you can either choose a strategy of changing or a strategy of making it look like you are changing; gambling has puts all its chips on the latter.

‘Can the gambling industry ever be responsible?’  Now, that’s a debate I’d like to be part of. Will it happen soon? I wouldn’t bet on it.


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