Hope, 27, was on the train on the way home from work when she saw a gambling advert on Facebook and decided to click on it. She'd abstained from gambling for a few months, but now, forty minutes in, she had once again blown almost an entire month’s wages. “Avoiding gambling temptation is impossible unless you give up all technology,” she says now, looking back. “Modern life for a problem gambler is like an alcoholic moving into a pub.”
For the estimated 500,000 gambling addicts in the UK – and many more “borderline problem” gamblers – it might be easy to sympathise with Hope’s predicament. When you start to look, you realise gambling adverts and offers are everywhere – on the TV at all hours, across social media and the internet, in magazines, newspapers, on billboards, bus and train stations. You can gamble on your phone, tablet, or laptop on your lunch break, late at night alone, in a meeting, having a pedicure, or out with friends – and the proof we are doing this lies in the numbers. The UK gambling industry has been estimated to be worth £7.1 billion, not including the National Lottery. And women – young, professional, solvent women are contributing a vast chunk of that growing figure. The gambling industry’s recognition of the female market is a relatively new thing. With the exception of the National Lottery, and bingo, before the internet, gambling was an almost exclusively male pastime. Smoky betting shops crammed with men clutching a copy of the Racing Post were not environments that appealed to many women – and certainly not to young, middle class women. Moreover, gambling traditionally tended to focus on sports and activities that were once distinctly male orientated – horse and dog racing, football, snooker and motorsports. However, according to the Gambling Commission, the internet has changed the face of gambling completely – and most significantly for young people, women, and specifically women in the AB economic category. They are gambling with greater frequency – and not just in historically female gambling activities like the lottery and bingo. Conversely, more traditional forms of betting like fruit slot machines, and dog and horse racing are on the decline, as is gambling participation of the over 55s, and the average number of activities undertaken by male gamblers. A typical advert aimed at men either portrays the male gambler as a lone-wolf 007-ish figure or goes for the humorous banter associated with boozy stag weekends. The female-orientated gambling adverts however, focus on lifestyle choices desirable to the modern, social woman: fun, friendship, loyalty, independence and glamour.
Interestingly, the adverts aimed at women avoid at all costs any reference to gambling as a solo pursuit. They’re all about gal pals out on a night together, high heels, pink open-topped cars, girly games, glitzy night-clubs, polished dance floors, cocktails and a weirdly sexy, dancing man-Fox. The message is always the same: that gambling is a risk-free party game where you can lose your inhibitions and win money, all in the company of your mates, or perhaps good old, trustworthy, salt of the earth landlady, Babs Windsor. These techniques are working. According to the Gambling Commission Report, women now account for 25% of gambling addicts, although it is thought that proportion is far higher when it comes to online gambling. Sophie*, 27, a recently qualified doctor, is the personification of the type of woman the gambling industry is currently targeting – young (so potentially a customer with longevity), gainfully employed, and well paid. Her story mirrors one you see frequently on forums on Gambler’s Anonymous and Breakeven – she was a bit lonely, and bored and started out gambling as a bit of fun. “When I was training to be a doctor, the hours were so long and gruelling, I had no social life and it destroyed my relationship with my long-term boyfriend who was a DJ and whose life was at polar odds with mine. The house was empty when I got home and I couldn’t sleep, so I started playing casino type games for fun. I won quite a lot of money quite quickly, which was a buzz. But the more I played, the more money I lost. In a fortnight, I blew close to £8000 and kept trying to win it back – without success.” Sophie admits to still gambling “occasionally” and still having “some debt” but tries to keep her online gambling restricted to one day a week. Alison's* story, 26, was more extreme. She had her children quite young (at 21 and 22.) Her husband earned a good wage, but travelled a lot as he worked in sales. The new responsibility, and monotony of raising small children, often solo, weighed heavily on Alison and like Sophie, she started playing “harmless” games online to “blow off steam.” She had soon racked up £40,000 of debt on credit cards and in loans – all without the knowledge of her husband. It all came to a head when the bailiffs came calling over Sunday lunch, while her in-laws were in attendance. She recalls: "I got found out in the most devastating way. It’s taken three years to begin to pay back my debt, let alone try and rebuild my marriage. My husband probably would have left me were it not for the children. We have no computers, laptops or smart phones in the house. I have an ancient flip phone with no internet! But whenever I see an advert on television, I still get that familiar itch.”
It’s escapism in an increasingly tough world – women tend to be escapism gamblers, men risk gamblers. It’s a high without the initial guilt or obvious effects of food or alcohol.
June Matthews, a qualified specialist in addiction counselling is entirely unsurprised by the appeal of gambling to a new generation of women: “It’s escapism in an increasingly tough world. Women tend to be escapism gamblers, men risk gamblers. It’s a high, without the initial guilt or obvious effects of food or alcohol. It’s a thrill, a bit like shopping – but with the potential to win money rather than spend it. And women are being very cleverly targeted to make it seem fun, feminine and risk-free.” A CEO at one of the biggest gambling companies in the world – who wished to stay anonymous – admitted to Refinery29 that, despite the company's outward commitment to “responsible gambling”, there is nothing they want more than to entice a new demographic of customer – and the new holy grail is young, solvent women. “We are keen to shake off the grimy gambling image of old, and we’ve already successfully done that. Women – especially women who are quite young with money – are a huge market for the online gambling industry and one [we] are really investing in targeting.” The commodification of female equality and financial independence is hardly a new thing, but it’s where advertising conflates with addiction that things become problematic. The marketing of gambling towards women now can be compared to the marketing of cigarettes toward women in the 1950s. As was depicted on the show Mad Men, smoking was sold to women as a gateway to glamour, independence, beauty and power – “torches of freedom.” Notably, that show ended, *spoiler* with Betty Draper, ex-wife of the show’s anti-hero, Don Draper, being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
The industry is enjoying something like the tobacco industry’s halcyon period of the ‘50s and ‘60s where it could advertise everywhere
Gambling won’t give you lung cancer, skin cancer, emphysema or wrinkles – but that’s precisely its appeal to a new generation of young women looking for new outlets for their desires – and both the gambling and advertising industry understands this very well. In terms of women gambling, the industry is enjoying something like the tobacco industry’s halcyon period of the ‘50s and ‘60s where it could advertise everywhere, with tempting slogans and imagery, before advertising standards intervened. We know that gambling can be highly addictive and can cause financial misery and destitution, the destruction of relationships, the loss of jobs and homes, and has been linked to suicide – and yet more and more of us are doing it. As Hope says, “Those pictures of pregnant women smoking in the ‘60s are horrifying to modern women. But then I saw one gambling advert and blew all my wages.” It seems that the first steps we need to take towards curbing the effects of gambling on women’s lives, could be a change in the way that gambling is advertised.
*Names have been changed.
*Names have been changed.