Gambling ad rule changes can benefit UK economy

There are just four days to go before the relaxation of the rules on gambling advertising on television and radio comes into force. So are we set for an explosion of betting firms on our screens from 1 September?

Or will it be a case of slowly slowly catchy monkey while the gambling sector assesses how hard it can push the new environment and tests the lie of the land before diving in head first with significant new advertising budgets?

Incoming media minister James Purnell has already fired a warning shot across the bows of the betting industry by encouraging the sector to introduce a further voluntary code setting out restrictions to temper the new advertising deregulation. The result of this is a 9pm watershed to avoid the chance of children seeing gambling ads.

There were even suggestions that Purnell was considering scrapping the new rules entirely. Whether these rumblings were seeded by him or the product of over-zealous interpretations of off-the-record conversations remains to be seen - but the resulting message was clear: stringent self-regulation would have to be the order of the day.

Nobody really knows how much new money will be coming into advertising: and nobody knows whether it will be new money or merely a transference of existing budgets to TV and radio. But, on balance, it still has to be seen as a positive development for the media sector.

There will be new companies spending money on advertising and under-developed brands looking to establish themselves beyond the slightly shabby and low-rent image many betting and poker firms suffer from.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has long been aware of the benefits the betting industry can bring to the UK economy. He has made strenuous efforts to try to persuade betting firms not to relocate to tax-friendly offshore environments such as Gibraltar and Malta. One of the most successful firms in the sector - betting exchange Betfair - has so far acceded to his entreaties to stay in the UK, but many others haven't.

As usual in these cases (see junk food for example) Brown and Purnell have a tricky dividing line to navigate between the needs of business and the moral majority lobby. They will be conscious of the need to placate the latter, while mindful of the benefits that an expanding and newly visible £3bn-plus industry can offer to UK plc.

- Steve Barrett is editor of Media Week, steve.barrett@haymarket.com.

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