On a recent Friday night, I was watching the crime drama Castle on Hulu. Ads came on, and I saw my work life flash before me. It was a DraftKings Casino commercial featuring a woman extolling the virtues of blackjack.
As I told my sources while researching this story about Americans upset about seeing legal sports betting ads on non-sports programming, I saw no problem with the online casino ad interrupting my show. An advertisement about legal online casino gambling during an episode of what Google describes as a “crime mystery/comedy-drama television series” was fine with me.
That’s because I live in Philadelphia, where online casino and poker are legal forms of gambling. Just about every legal US online casino operator offers an app here.
I’m over 21. I’m also probably part of an adult audience for Castle, considering the show ended in 2016. So Ontario’s objection to advertising to minors also doesn’t apply.
However, some Americans think context is everything. A DraftKings Casino commercial should air during a show about gambling, they believe. Sports betting ads should air during games, they say.
However, there’s a big difference between “should” and what’s legal. Part of the reason for that is “should” is subjective. One person’s “should” is another person’s “meh.”
So here, we’ll look at why legal online gambling ads appear where they do. Plus, we’ll consider why Americans are having heated conversations with their lawmakers and regulators about online gambling operators’ marketing and advertising practices in September 2023.
It’s important to note that we’re more than five years into the big push by states to legalize online sports betting after May 2018, when the US Supreme Court made that possible. This year, Kentucky became the 37th state to legalize sports betting, and the Bluegrass State’s online marketplace launches on Sept. 28.
DraftKings Casino Not Lone iGaming Advertiser
On Aug. 29, iSpot.tv released its 2023 Sports Betting TV Ad Transparency Report.
The research showed that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15, sports wagering ads were increasingly appearing in general programming.
While NBA games included the highest number of ads, at nearly 18% of impressions, iSpot.tv reported that the show Friends got 3.15%. That’s the most significant percentage of sports betting ads on non-sports programming, but other such shows the research mentioned included On Patrol: Live, South Park, and Young Sheldon.
FanDuel, the operator with the country’s No. 1 sports betting market share, accounted for nearly 49% of the ads. DraftKings had 21%, and BetMGM, the third of the Big Three online gambling operators in both revenue and market share, was responsible for 16% of the commercials.
iSpot.tv explained in the report:
While sports-related programming still accounted for over 58% of sportsbook TV ad impressions, that’s down considerably from over 74% during the same stretch last year. Shows like Friends (+394%) and South Park (+528%) saw huge jumps in sportsbook ad impression deliveries as these advertisers started to mature strategies to find potential bettors outside of premium sporting events.
In publishing its take on the iSpot.tv research on Sept. 1, Forbes inadvertently spurred another debate. The Forbes contributor mistook On Patrol: Live, a reality show about police officers, for Paw Patrol, an animated children’s program.
That caused the problem and responsible gambling lobbyist Brianne Doura-Schawohl to tweet on Sept. 7.
She posted a link to the Forbes article and her reaction:
Is this a joke? 👇🏻
“iSpot found a growing number of sportsbook ads are now airing on non-sports programs, among them are Friends, Paw Patrol Live, South Park & Young Sheldon
All 4 programs rank in the top 10 of national tv impressions w/ sportsbook ads”
Shortly afterward, a reply that it wasn’t Paw Patrol came from Steve Ruddock, who writes Straight to the Point on Substack.
Do Operators Control Where Their Ads Appear?
While many Americans remember the horror stories of household-name brands like Hasbro fighting YouTube in 2019 after their ads appeared next to pedophilic content, today’s situation is far different for marketers.
Unlike the 2017 fight marketers had with YouTube over their ads showing up next to sexual harassment content and hate speech, operators can dictate where their ads appear on TV, in search, and other marketing channels.
Considering Disqo reports sports betting operators will spend $2 billion on ads in 2023, 8% more than in 2022, media companies are likely interested in keeping those marketers happy. (Plus, that $2 billion total doesn’t even include ad spend on online casino and poker app ads.)
So, the DraftKings marketing effort that resulted in DraftKings Casino showing up in the middle of my Castle episode was likely planned.
That’s because marketers have “plenty of control” in “direct” and “programmatic” buys, said Jeffrey S. Litvack, CEO of Golden Peak Media.
Full disclosure: Litvack, the former CEO of Adweek and Brandweek, was my boss when I freelanced for Adweek.
Litvack told Bonus on Monday:
They can specify which sites, print publications, or television shows they want their content to appear in front of. Most publishers and marketers will setup — “do not” lists (i.e., do not allow this type of content or do not allow this company to advertise on our site (typically competitors).
So unless marketers haven’t taken the time to plan their advertising spend, Litvack told Bonus that they have control over ad context.
He said to Bonus:
Contextual ad targeting is readily available on all publisher sites; and simply selecting specific publishers (i.e., quiltingdaily.com, if you want to reach the quilting audience) already sets you up for contextual advertising.
Marketing consultant Jeanette McMurtry, author of Marketing for Dummies, Sixth Edition, told Bonus on Monday:
When I place media, its most often for run-of-site ads on a trade journal’s site. ‘Run of site’ means you pay for an ad to appear on random pages throughout the site. For more money, you can purchase space om specific pages like the home page. Ads appear on top of the site in the masthead or on the side bars.
Where Can Gambling Ads Legally Appear?
Despite claims from the public, lawmakers, and state gaming regulators who’ve been critical of legal online gambling marketing and advertising this year, operators can’t run amok with their ads.
Legal online gambling ads are in a special category, like alcohol commercials.
Litvack said to Bonus on Monday:
Most publishers have guidelines in place for whether or not they will take these ads. Publishers will in their contract have specifications that say they can reject an ad for any reason.
Indeed, in July 2021, YouTube enacted a gambling ad policy.
Twitch did so in September 2022.
However, some rules have already prevented gambling ads from appearing in specific contexts.
Litvack highlighted the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Besides, Litvack told Bonus, another way to prevent mistakes is to not buy ads on those sites.
He said to Bonus:
Online gambling sites simply don’t buy from sites that are directed at children. There are lists that the marketer should have. Marketers should be targeting only certain sites and certain age groups.
On a place like Facebook, they can set up criteria to limit who their ads will appear against. Remember COPPA law has a lot of restrictions.
Speaking of which, Facebook has an online gambling ad policy that includes this language:
Meta doesn’t allow targeting for online gambling and gaming ads to people under the age of 18.
Online Gambling Ads Are Fit for Prime Time
Bonus asked Litvack about Young Sheldon because it’s adult programming, but it shows a child. In Ontario, advertising on that show might be banned.
Litvack told Bonus:
Generally, TV advertising in prime time is considered 18+, so no reason ads can’t appear. During certain children’s programming hours and programs (i.e., afterschool day time and weekend mornings), gambling advertisers should stay away.
What about streaming services, when viewers could be watching shows at any time of day?
Litvack answered Bonus:
The process is somewhat different [between] network/broadcast TV and streaming services. But end of day, they follow the same rules. Define what programs you want to have your ads show up on and run that way. With streaming services (like YouTube) you have even greater targeting capabilities.
So, is there a problem with showing online casino, poker, and sports wagering ads out of contexts that involve table games and sports?
Is the DraftKings Casino commercial during Castle kosher?
Litvack said to Bonus:
Gambling is legal in the US and with DraftKings, it’s mainstream. Even lotteries are mainstream. So outside of putting ads on kids programming (under age 18) there’s no reason ads can’t be on most sites. Publishers who don’t want gambling ads on their websites do so for specific reasons typically related to their audiences (e.g., their core audience might consider gambiling a sin and would be turned off by such an ad).
As for Castle‘s context, anyone who’s ever watched Castle knows he plays poker with his mystery writer buddies.