Normalisation is not a dirty word

The first time I heard the word “email” would have been about 1993 at the first publisher I ever worked for. We were trying to get some cover imagery and, with no way to get a SyQuest drive (anybody remember those?) or similar posted to us in time for the issue going to print, my editor said, “We’ll have to get them to email it and hope nobody phones up in the night”.

“Say that again, please – get them to what?”

“Email it.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Since then, of course, it’s ubiquitous, it’s every-damn-where and we all know what it is. But that first time? I thought he might be drunk. It’s become normalised.

“Normalisation” is a term that’s bandied about a lot and, these days, it’s usually in connection with gambling. Gambling has been normalised, it’s a common thing now, it’s this, or it’s that, it’s the other. It’s never used in a positive sense, of course.

What does it mean? It really just means something is recognised as acceptable, where it either didn’t exist previously or had a much lower profile and was therefore irrelevant.

It’s usually something bad. The other pastime it’s used with frequently is smoking and in many countries there has been a concerted effort in recent years to de-normalise this particular social ill. It’s been very successful too, or it was until vaping became popular and, well, normalised. Not that I’m equating the two things, they’re entirely different excepting the base addiction to nicotine.

Integrated into our culture

In the UK, tobacco advertising was banned in 2003, followed in 2007 by a workplace smoking ban, which effectively meant you could no longer smoke in pubs. You can’t even have tobacco on display for sale now.

The whole crusade has been incredibly effective and the path to success is a simple and easy-to-understand one. Take away the routes of visibility, starve it of oxygen and, as proponents die off and the next generation matures, smoking is not even relevant.

I read an article on The Conversation a while back and it said that sports is being used to normalise gambling and it should be treated the same way smoking is. The article opened by saying that if you watch sports on TV you are “four times more likely to see a gambling ad during a sports broadcast than during other programming”.

Sure, and probably also more likely to see a beer commercial and/or beer sponsorship. It’s the perceived relevance of the audience to the advertiser. You may also notice more chocolate and bingo commercials during soap operas; it’s not a coincidence.

But the reason why you cannot denormalise gambling in the same way as smoking is a simple one. It’s already part of our language. We use it as shorthand in conversation every day of our lives. Non-gamblers do it all the time.

How did it get to this stage?

Even in The Guardian, they run articles on the favourites to win certain prizes. Think of movies – this might sound tenuous, but bear with me – and the prominent plot device of “parley” in the early films.

I know it’s not the same term, context or anything as when it’s used in gambling. OK, they might want to conference then (fan)duel when they hear it… I’ll get my coat. The point is, it’s a really unusual and very specific term with at best two contexts. One of those is in gambling, the other is a hugely successful Hollywood movie franchise.

How often do you hear people say, “What are the odds of that happening?” They don’t actually want the odds, it’s just accepted language. It’s furniture. It’s just there.

The point is, gambling is already normalised, and it has been for a very, very long time.

I asked Alan Hardacre about this, someone with extensive experience in both the gambling and tobacco industries. His lanyard would say he is a public affairs leader, but he wears many hats well.

“Normalising basically means establishing a market,” he said. “You’re trying to set up something in a culture that doesn’t have the affinity or the current offer and you try to establish a market. You’re trying to sell an activity as a legitimate pastime.

“If you wanted to denormalise something like online gambling, you would have to establish the harm that’s being done, how it’s being done, then create a strategy to go after the individual elements of that harm.”

Balance is key

Now, part of the problem with online gambling’s image is advertising. It’s often extremely effective, but that’s not the issue: the issue is quantity.

Hardacre describes it neatly as “carpet bombing”. It’s this carpet bombing – which, with this definition of normalisation, is actually as simple as trying to establish a market that perhaps didn’t exist in this way before – that is creating pushback. If we don’t monitor it ourselves, regulation will come and do it for us.

It’s one thing when a group like the Betting and Gaming Council announce how brilliant their whistle-to-whistle ban is. But it’s another when studies reveal that in one football match, betting logos could be seen 37 times per minute.

When a football club’s due diligence for shirt sponsorship amounts to basically taking the cheque into the bank and chuckling, the gambling industry has to do more and be better for everyone involved. The clubs are selling pitchside advertising space on digital boardings which are shown worldwide; the Premier League is the most-watched sports league in the world by some distance. They just want the money, after all.

The best thing our trade bodies could do would be to draw up an industry agreement whereby external advertising – anything outside the boundaries of your own website or signed-up player comms – is limited.

The pushback we are seeing carries genuine weight. While we are all excited about the prospect of new markets opening up, regulators are listening to concerns and complaints. They will undoubtedly affect new market regulation in future.

As Hardacre summarises, “in small doses none of this would be offensive, but in the absolute overdose it’s served, it becomes offensive”.

Jon Bruford has been working in the gambling industry for over 17 years, formerly as managing editor of Casino International and presently as publishing director at The Gaming Boardroom, with Kate Chambers and Greg Saint. He owns a large dog with a sensitive stomach and spends his free time learning about stain removal.

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