British gambling culture: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part two

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British gambling culture: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part two

In the second part of Right Casino’s interview with Dr Mark Griffiths, we speak about gambling and British culture, asking the question: are we a nation of gamblers? From Ray Winstone’s match predictions to ladies’ night at the casino, Dr Griffiths offers his perspective on gambling in the United Kingdom…

Interview transcript

Right Casino: Now we’re going to ask a few questions about gambling and popular culture, particularly in Britain. What do you feel is unique about gambling culture in the United Kingdom?

Dr Griffiths: To be honest, I’m very lucky that I travel around the world and I see lots of different gambling cultures and I wouldn’t actually say Britain is unique in any way. Right Casino: Really?


Dr Griffiths: I think the perception from abroad is that Britain has always been a nation of gamblers.

Right Casino: Really?

Dr Griffiths: Now, yes. The most interesting and most profound change that I’ve noticed since I came to this area was when the national lottery was introduced in 1994. We suddenly had an activity that two thirds of the British public were gambling on. Even though most people if you say to them do you gamble? They’ll say no. And say do you play the lottery and they say yes. It’s quite obvious there is a kind of mismatch between people viewing playing the lottery as a form of gambling.

But what the lottery did is it made gambling more socially acceptable. It made it more socially condoned and what you got was this kind of drip, drip, drip effect. The lottery came in and of course immediately the football polls and the bingo were basically saying you’ve taken some of our customers away. You’re not letting us advertise on television. We’ve got to have an equal playing field. So the government in terms of liberalisation and deregulation allowed bingo and football polls to advertise in print media, radio, TV.

Then of course you’ve got other parts of the industry saying hang on a minute. Why are scratch cards being advertised in the middle of Coronation Street? You the Home Office have just said, the hard forms of gambling are those which have high or rapid staking. Well scratch cards can have high or rapid staking. You’re already allowing that to be advertised every half an hour on ITV so why can’t we advertise our products?

Of course this led then to the Gambling Act. There were many, many years of people like myself being interviewed about various aspects of things. Gambling now I think is a highly sociably acceptable activity. Of course now with online opportunities the fact that people can gamble remotely from their mobile phones, from interactive television, through the Internet. It’s absolutely everywhere. It’s actually endemic within British culture now.

We were one of the first countries that actually legalised Internet gambling. We’re actually saying that we are a progressive, proactive nation. We can’t put the genie back in a bottle. This idea of America trying to ban Internet gambling was just absolutely ludicrous. Britain has actually taken a very progressive stance, a proactive stance. It’s tried to literally grab the nettles and try to sort this problem out.

It’s quite clear that we are a gambling nation because our successive governments have basically said people do want to gamble. We’ll give them opportunities to gamble. But you as operators now have to put into place harm minimisation measures, player protection measures, responsible gambling features so that the harm can be kept to a minimum.

My perception is that I don’t think we’re unique. I’m very lucky because I do travel from country to country seeing gambling cultures. I think what we do have in this country is that we’re a lot more relaxed and tolerant of other people gambling even if we don’t gamble ourselves. There’s a big anti-gambling significant minority faction out there. They’re often a lot of faith groups. People that have been affected by gambling themselves. You’ll get that with alcohol. You’ll get that with other kinds of illicit drugs. Gambling is no different. But I think honestly in twenty years, the nation’s heartbeat on gambling has really softened. Most people now, if you include the lottery, most people gamble rather than not gamble.

Right Casino: Okay. I suppose this is somewhat related to the previous question. How do you think the public perceives different forms of gambling? Is our perception of bingo and poker different say to our perception of roulette and slots? Do people have different feelings towards different games, different practices?

Dr Griffiths: We know for a fact that people think differently about different games. Of course there are some people that for instance play the lottery that never dream of engaging in any of the gambling activity apart from maybe a once a year bet on the Grand National. There are some things that are perceived as kind of bringing people together. Buying lottery tickets, buy the odd scratch card, betting on the Derby or the Grand National.

Those kinds of things we’re almost expected to have aflutter on. The amount parents that give their children say right, here’s one pound to gamble on the Grand National. Which horse do you want to choose?

Right Casino: Mine did.

Dr Griffiths: Yes, those kinds of things are socially acceptable. People do them. There is a big difference between that and for instance going into a casino and spending all night playing poker or blackjack or sitting there playing a slot machine. We know that a number of people that frequent casinos is very, very small.

Less than 5% of the British public will have gone into a casino in the year. It just shows you that’s a very low prevalence activity. Although of course casinos in and of themselves are generating lots and lots of profit, which suggests that a small amount of people are generating this profit of which a proportion will obviously be problem gamblers as well.

Now in terms of how the public think about different activities, of course I do think this is where the media can have a role sometimes. For instance we’ve seen a lot of stories over the last year about fixed all the betting terminals in betting shops. They have been painted out by the media to be the most addictive things ever and it will all probably put some people off ever wanting to play those things in the first place because of the amount that it could cost them and how much money you can lose very, very quickly.

Now the thing about this is that my attitude is if you’re a gambler and you want to gamble on something, you should have all the information up front to make an informed choice about whether you’re going to play or not.

Now I’m sure when I talk later about how and why some people become addicted, there is quite clearer an association between problem gambling and fixed odds betting terminals. But we have to take the point that it’s not the game itself, it’s how those games are designed. I’ll come to that later on in the interview because I know we’re going to cover that.

Right Casino: Thank you very much! In your research, what have you learned about different gambling demographics? Are people of a certain age or gender inclined to gamble on certain games? Dr Griffiths: I think when we look at anything to do with the demographics of gambling is that what we know is that it differs [from] culture to culture. Here in the UK what we tend to find is that the only activity that’s played more by women than men is bingo. There are two activities - lotteries and scratch cards - that are played equally by men and women. Every single other activity tends to be played more by men than women.

Having said that I think those kinds of differences between the games are going to diminish over the years and will become a bit like alcohol. Forty years ago most men drank. It was mostly men that were alcoholics. Now what we see is just as many women drink as men. The only difference is the types of drinks that people tend to get addicted to and I think this is what will happen in gambling. I think what’s happening now there’s a real push to bring for instance women to play online bingo. We know that women love playing bingo so what the online firms have done, they’ve decided we don’t want to alienate half of our potential customers. So why don’t we bring them into game? We know they like playing offline and bring an online dimension, allow them to chat to each other. Make it kind of a social fun.

But of course in terms of online is that the games tend to be a lot faster. The event frequency is higher. There is actually a more potential for people to develop problems in those kinds of online environments because of the event frequency. We also know that men kind of gravitate more towards skill-based games and women tend to prefer chance-based games. But again this is cultural. Now in this country for instance, we are the only country in the world where men are more likely to play slot machines than women. You go to most other places and it pretty much is equal in terms of the number of males and females gambling say in America on a slot machines. The thing about our slot machines over here of course is that we are the only country in the world that actually have slot machines that don’t use a random number generator and for people that know what they’re doing there is a small element of skill in playing a British slot machine. People can literally watch the machine fill up with other people’s money, then come in and actually get the pay out from it.

We actually tracked down the patent in this country and found that British slot machines use what’s called adaptive logic. They have what’s called a compensator. Now the reason for this is that in this country particularly kind of what we call single site machines. The machines that are at cafes, chip shops, movie foyers, etc. These single site machines were often what kept the business afloat. Now if you use a random number generator, kind of RNG techniques that are used abroad, they’re on kind of a yearly pay out cycle.

The thing is the shops, chip shops, cafes can’t wait a year before they get profits back. They have to have a regular set of profits being paid back. What happens instead of the kind of cycles of probability being based on millions and millions of spins, here in this country they are on hundreds of thousands, which does mean if you watch a machine fill up with £300 of other people’s money that machine does have to pay out in the short term and so called sharking, backstabbing, skimming, a whole load of names is built up with people that come in and basically take those people’s money.

For me that is a skilful element even though essentially slot machines are still on the whole chance determined. If people understand British slot machines versus American slot machines is you will realise there’s an element of skill, which is why I think here in Britain young males like playing slot machines because they see it as akin to a kind of videogame. It’s a skill based game that if you know everything you can do better. But abroad these are totally chance determined, which is why both men and women will play them.

What we know is that culturally there are differences based on how particular products are designed. We know that males and females tend to gravitate towards different types of activity with men more skill based and women more chance based. There’s also an age factor as well. We know for instance that online gambling is very much the domain of those aged between eighteen and thirty four. You get a much higher proportion of younger people gambling via the Internet. Of course these are people that have been brought up in this technological culture.

I look at my three screen-agers. They have never known a world with the Internet, without mobile phone, without interactive television. My children will be the gamblers of tomorrow, they will actually partake in gambling in areas where and [through] mediums with which they’re familiar. The typical fifty year-old either doesn’t trust or is not very familiar with the online world.

My mother before she died she still couldn’t even program the video. She never even turned on a computer. Someone like her is not going to be able to gamble online. Of course all people, like my own kids, were using state of the art technology from three or four years old, you can imagine them being the gamblers of tomorrow and wanting to gamble with the things that they find most comfortable and actually trust.

Right Casino: Absolutely. In your view is there disparity between the way the gambling industry represents female gamblers throughout advertising and the actual gambling habits of women? Does this come down to a degree of chauvinism inherent in gambling culture?

Dr Griffiths: It’s quite clear that traditionally females have not been big gamblers. Even when they do gamble, if they go along to bingo it’s more for the social element rather than to win money. What bingo halls have done, they’ve kind of got linked jackpots now. They’ve made the jackpot prize much bigger. What that has done is brought younger females into play who are actually more money motivated than being socially motivated. But interestingly it’s brought more men in.

Again by increasing a jackpot size, if you go into a typical bingo hall now you’d probably around about a fifth of the people in there are actually males. Twenty years ago it was probably 99% females and what was stereotypically called the Blue Rinse Brigade. You go in now and you see the spread of females is right down to kind of eighteen right up to those in their mid-seventies. This is all because if you like the structural characteristics of the activity have changed. Whereas before you might win the equivalent to a can of beans now you can win thousands and thousands of pounds through a linked jackpot playing right across the country.

Obviously if I was running a gambling operation what I don’t want to do is alienate half of my potential customers. Of course what people are doing now is feminising their products. What are the bookmakers doing? Instead of having a bet on who’s going to win a particular league it’ll be who’s going to be next evicted from the Big Brother house? Who’s going to win an Oscar this year? Who’s going to be evicted from I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! They’re going to choose activities that they think females will have an opinion on and might actually want to have a bet on as well.

It’s not just a case of bringing in online bingo and actually catering for activities that females traditionally play anyway. You’ve got to bring activities that you think females might actually have a view on and actually want to engage in. I think we’ll see this right across the industry.

The real blocks for or one of the barriers for women at the moment is that there are a lot of gambling environments [that] are seen as very male biased and male based. If you walk into a typical casino if you look at the people actually gambling probably 90% of them are men. There may be other women around watching, having a drink, watching their partner play or whatever. But people find those environments very male dominated. As a result of that, women actually gambling in what they perceive to be male environments like a bookmakers or like a casino is something that women may feel stigmatises them, or they feel alienated from it.

Of course what some casinos are doing and we’ve noticed it here in Nottingham they have female nights, women nights only. Women can come in. They get a free meal if they come and then they can play and gamble in the casino. I do think most sectors within the industry are starting to realise there are 100% of people out there. Why are we only catering for 50% of them? I think you’ll find lots and lots of advertising, marketing, just different ways of gambling to bring that female audience in.

Right Casino: Okay. How is the increase in the number of celebrity endorsements affecting the gambling industry? Take Shane Warne’s affiliation with 888 casino. Ray Winston’s voiceover for Bet 365. Does the fact that a known figure is openly endorsing gambling, say on television or the Internet, through various media outlets make gambling seem acceptable?

Dr Griffiths: Certainly celebrity endorsement in any area of selling something is seen to be something that will bring the punters in or bring the buyers in some way. To be honest firms wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of pounds paying people to do it if they didn’t think it had an effect. Now with gambling it can work very well for you and it can actually go really wrong.

The most classic case where a celebrity was used where actually resulted in people having a downturn in gambling is when Billy Connolly advertised the national lottery. At the time he was purple bearded. He was somebody that was in a series of commercials wanting people to play lottery. What Camelot found in their research was that yes, there was high recognisability and high recall for the advertising campaigns but it actually put people off wanting to gamble on their products.

Now obviously people like Shane Warne and is that they’re trying to portray a particular image. Here’s somebody that is well known all around the world, international star, okay? It’s basically saying if you come to 888 you’re identifying with Shane Warne as an individual. In effect you’re trying to say I want to be something like Shane Warne. A successful man who’s wealthy, got a beautiful girlfriend, etc., etc.

Ray Winston. If you look at him in terms of the typical sports better they probably chosen Ray because he’s got that kind of regional dialect, London accent. He’s basically Joe Public in terms of how he comes across but he’s been incredibly successful.

The in play betting market is the fastest growing market in this country. Who are the most successful firms? It’s Bet 365. Even my twelve year old son, right? When we’re watching a sports match now, what does he do? He tries to guess what Ray Winston’s bet is going to be during the halftime. He’ll go ‘I bet he’s going to say that Rooney’s 2 to 1 score the next goal.’ That has become so endemic that even my own teenage children recognise him, recognise what he’s doing. So they’re an important part.

Now for some people there are always going to be celebrities that put them off gambling on a particular product and also there are things when things go horribly wrong. We had the example for instance, Churchill Insurance and we had Vic Reaves who was the voiceover. Then he was done for drink driving. Of course being in the insurance firm the Churchill were paying out on car accidents. They couldn’t have him as the voice anymore.

There’s always a thing in terms of reputation management. There’s an old cliché that reputation takes a lifetime to build up but a second to destroy. Whenever you get any kind of celebrity endorsements yes they can have a real halo effect for a while but if something goes wrong then that might actually hit on the product as well. Gambling is always going to have that image problem.

My guess is that Shane Warne is not somebody that is controversy free. There are things around him in terms of wild nights and spending too much, blah, blah, blah. Now that might actually be appealing to a small amount of audience and maybe 888 have done their research and realised that he’s going to attract the kind of customer that they want. But celebrity endorsements are here to stay. There’s nothing that’s going to stop them doing it. People do believe that it makes a massive difference in terms of uptake and acquisition of that activity. It’s not something I condemn. All I would say is I’m not anti-gambling in the slightest but I am anti-adolescent gambling. I think where you’ve got celebrities – my son’s a cricket fan. Knows who Shane Warne is. We sit and for many years now and watched IPL cricket. Shane Warne was captain of Rajasthan Royals.

But him promoting gambling if it’s done during a time where children are actively watching I think that has negative effects for children. As far as I’m concerned gambling is an adult activity. It’s got a right to be marketed and advertising but it should be done and targeted at times where adults are watching rather than children.

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