Marketing madness in Lithuania

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In May 2021 Lithuania’s parliament – the Seimas – banned “promotions” in an amendment to its existing law on gambling.

While the initial wording was vague, authorities reassured the industry that it was a ban on inducements, rather than a sweeping ad ban. Defending the move, the Lithuanian government cited the hope of minimising problem gambling rates and lowering the amount of money its residents spend on gambling as reasons for doing so.

But in the thirteen months since the ban was enforced, Lithuania’s gambling regulatory body has saddled operators with fines for a range of supposed gambling promotions that wouldn’t normally be classed as infractions in other countries, even countries with strict ad rules of their own.

Some – including Unigames and Betsson – have been warned of licence suspensions after receiving fines.

The Gambling Supervisory Authory has unwittingly – or otherwise – implemented a culture of uncertainty, where operators have no choice but to self-govern. And they often, the body has determined, get it wrong.

Backdoor ban

Earlier this week, Betsson brand Betsafe received a €25,000 (£20,982/$25,591) fine from Lithuania’s regulator after the operator distributed a newsletter about an online game to 10,430 people. In its findings, the regulator stated that the newsletter purposefully promoted the game by including references to its features.

Most can see that this was probably not an attempt to skirt the ban on promotions. And a large international business like Betsson has surely paid attention to the laws. Nonetheless, Betsafe joins the horde of operators that have received controversial fines since the ban was enacted.

In May, Olympic Casino Group was fined for supposedly promoting gambling for text including, ‘Specially selected casino games; play’ on its Oly.Bet website. Enlabs was also fined for a similar infringement, again concerning text on its own website.

Perhaps most egregiously of all, earlier this year Enlabs was issued a fine of €11,183 after the gambling authority determined it had promoted gambling by sending a terms and conditions email.

Although the promotions ban looked like a ban on inducements at first glance, Lithuania’s gambling authority looks to have gone one step further in almost every instance of its enforcement. 

The curb on advertising and the promotions ban came to be after a survey operated by Lithuania’s regulatory body indicated some support for a complete ban, though other questions about the industry and marketing suggested that opinions were muddled. While just over half of respondents backed an ad ban, most also said they hadn’t seen any gambling ads lately, while an overwhelming majority said the gambling industry was important to the national economy.

At a certain point, it seems that the country’s regulator has taken steps to do just that, but rather than via the accountability of legislation or government decree, it has done so by the back door.

Shifting goalposts

But Lithuania isn’t the only country to implement tight restrictions on advertising. In February this year France’s gambling regulator, L’Autorité Nationale des Jeux, clamped down on advertising and restricted promotions following what it perceived to be a high volume of ads during the 2021 European Championship.

France’s curb on promotions is harsh, but much more clear-cut, with categorical boundaries and rules clearly outlined. On the other hand, Lithuania’s ban is indicative of shifting goalposts, leaving operators unsure of what constitutes an infraction – and when the country’s supervisory authority could come hammering down.

Elsewhere, the Netherlands is set to enforce a complete ban on “untargeted” advertising, in which it will prohibit broadcast advertisements from 1 January 2023. How this will be enforced remains to be seen, especially in terms of its guidelines for online ads.

But for those thinking Lithuania is just a small, easy-to-ignore market, the precedent could be troubling. In a country where the public have expressed a distaste for gambling ads, could authorities again sneak a de facto ad ban into force without scrutiny?

Lithuania’s promotions ban came thick and fast, announced just weeks before its imposition. Perhaps it should have been examined in greater detail before it was rolled out, to avoid the uncertainty and fear it has cultivated since.

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