“The key in the advertising message of betting houses is giving consumers the illusion of control over the product”

Dr Hibai López González is a lecturer in the Department of Library and Information Science and Audiovisual Communication of the Faculty of Information and Audiovisual Media at the University of Barcelona. His main field of research is studying how marketing and advertising campaigns affect gambling and what type of influence they have on people who develop gambling problems.

What impact does advertising for gambling companies have on the development of gambling addictions?
There are many factors involved in a person having this type of mental-health issue. Exposure to stimuli in their environment, such as adverts, is a small part of other factors, like their psychology and personality, and biological and social determinants like their family environment, laws in their country, etc.

How do companies design their products to make them more addictive?
The structural characteristics of the product determine how dangerous it is. If you do the football pools on a Wednesday and have to wait until Sunday to find out the results of the matches, that four- or five-day wait makes this product less attractive. However, if you’re betting live and know the result of your bet in just minutes, it’s much easier to keep on betting. The length of the game and ease of access determine how addictive a product is.

How do betting houses put together a credible message so consumers believe they can win money on this type of product?
There’s a very important element, which is how they make you feel like you’ve almost won. Meaning, how do you make a product in which you lose money but have the sensation that you’re just about to win money? On a slot machine, if you need three melons to win the prize, getting one melon, one lemon and one strawberry isn’t the same as getting two melons and half a melon that you almost, but not quite, land on. And you think: if I keep going, I’ll win. All of that has to do with product design and this is very important because it is something you can hold the company that makes the product responsible for. Because if we only look at the genetic or psychological factors of people with gambling problems, we put the blame on the person with the problem. However, if research focuses on how the products are designed, marketed and publicised, then we can hold the industry liable and legislation can have an impact on how these companies operate.

The house always wins, right?
The reward the consumer sees has to be intermittent; sometimes they get a reward, sometimes they don’t. But they can’t lose all the time. For a casino, it’s very important for the punters to win sometimes. If you only lost, no one would go. It wouldn’t make any sense. This is a significant part of the advertising message: convincing people a product designed so consumers lose in the long term is better than others and making consumers think they can make a profit. This is key in their advertising message, generating this illusion of control over the product.

What type of audience is most susceptible to these messages?
Teens and young people are most vulnerable, and people who already have a problem with gambling. People who have developed a gambling problem, in our interviews, report that advertising has a greater influence on them, that it makes them feel bad psychologically. Sometimes they’re trying to quit, but they are exposed to new stimuli, like emails or a slot machine in a bar when they want to grab coffee.

What stage is your research at now?
I’m starting to study some of the changes we’re seeing in the sector. Now, most football teams don’t wear the logos of betting houses, but they do wear advertising for investments that incorporate elements of gambling, such as trading apps, fan tokens (a type of crypto-asset with speculative value) and NFTs. And I’m looking for funding to start a project on the advertising and marketing strategy behind these new products that incorporate elements of gambling. I’m reaching out to the UB community to see if any other departments are interested in this topic. I’m open to collaborating and setting up a team or whatever we need.


More about Hibai López

The best invention in history?
The universal health system. I think the idea that a person deserves to stay alive simply because they exist, because they are a person, is truly revolutionary.

What would you like to see in the future?
Universal income that covers our basic needs. We’ve developed a technological structure that is sophisticated enough to ensure that everyone can survive with very little work.

A future breakthrough that scares you?
Nothing specific. I’m optimistic about the real meaning of human advances in the long term, and even though they’re initially adopted to benefit the few and sometimes to enslave other human beings, I think the overall trend is for them to be democratised in the end and lead to greater wellbeing for all.

Someone you admire?
Sherlock Holmes. I know he’s a fictional character, but I’ve always been fascinated by his blind trust in the scientific method, in deductive reasoning as a way to reach the truth. And I also like one very specific aspect of Charles Darwin. I’m not a biologist and I can’t understand his genius, but the fact that he came back from collecting data on his journey on the Beagle and waited twenty years to publish the results (forced by another scientists), speaks to me about the importance of thinking through the implications the results may have. Not just throwing it all out there, but really thinking about what the results mean.

Transfer is important for…
Doing things that matter, that are useful to other human beings. With this core idea, transfer isn’t an effort science has to make to reach the public; it’s an involuntary, automatic consequence of what we do. Not transferring knowledge but “contaminating” knowledge.


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