It started rather innocuously when we were watching hockey in the spring of 2022. The TV gets a lot more use once the NHL playoffs roll around, and we started to notice that the commercial content had changed, significantly. It didn’t take long to figure out the trend, and now it’s official: Sports betting has gone mainstream. It was annoying after watching one game, and mildly infuriating after watching a seven-game series. There was nothing sneaky about it. It was just there, suddenly. Call it a barrage, a bombardment, or a bludgeoning—call it anything but subtle. For folks who don’t gamble, it felt like an insult. For folks who do, maybe it was an adrenaline rush.
So, what changed? For starters, in August 2021 single-game betting was legalized. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) is the entity that regulates slots, VLTs, raffles, lotteries, and online gambling. The commission states that Play Alberta is the only gambling site that is legal and regulated in Alberta. At the bottom of each AGLC web page, there’s a reminder to drink, use, and gamble responsibly. According to their website, “Gaming, liquor, and cannabis revenues support public initiatives such as healthcare, education, community development, and youth programs.” Huh? So, some of the proceeds of our worst vices go towards noble causes? That’s reassuring.
CBC reporter Taylor Simmons wrote a May 25 story on gambling ads during their ‘first wave.’ Steve Lautischer, vice-president of gaming with the AGLC was one of her sources, and he said, “It’s illegal for somebody to be offering bets to Albertans that are not regulated. The only legal sports bets in the province of Alberta today are either found through what we offer on PlayAlberta.ca or what is offered on Western Canada Lottery Sport Select brand.”
His statement creates an unseemly conundrum: The ads you’re seeing in Alberta are often illegal, at least for an Albertan. Play Alberta requires a registration process to sign up, and the fine print makes it clear — Play Alberta is for residents only, and the resident must be physically present in the province to play. An Alberta resident technically can’t play even if they’re just across the provincial line in Maple Creek or Sparwood.
According to the CBC article, “Lautischer places some of the blame on federal agencies and broadcasters themselves for showing advertisements for sites that aren’t regulated in Alberta. ‘It does concern me to see such a slew of illegal advertising occurring in the province … and some of these companies that are on the illegal side certainly have deep pockets,’ he said. Additionally, he said there’s ‘not necessarily a penalty for Albertans to place a wager on these sports betting sites, but he cautions against it. ‘There’s really no guarantee for their banking information… Is it safe and secure? I can’t tell you.’”
If you take a look at the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, you’ll find a fair bit of leeway for allowing questionable content. For example: “It is recognized that advertisements may be distasteful without necessarily conflicting with the provisions of this clause, and the fact that a particular product or service may be offensive to some people is not sufficient grounds for objecting to an advertisement for that product or service.” In other words, bad taste and ethically dubious material are okay—they can’t really be contested.
However, the code isn’t without conscience. It states, “Advertising that is directed to children must not exploit their credulity, lack of experience, or their sense of loyalty, and must not present information or illustrations that might result in their physical, emotional or moral harm.” So then, are gambling ads directed at kids? Probably not directly, but certainly inadvertently.
The code also says that “products prohibited from sale to minors must not be advertised in such a way as to appeal particularly to persons under the legal age, and people featured in advertisements for such products must be, and clearly seen to be, adults under the law.” And further: “Advertisements shall not: (…) directly encourage, or exhibit obvious indifference to, unlawful behaviour.”
So, let’s get this straight: The companies themselves are illegal, they’re basically unregulated, and enforcement is virtually non-existent. It’s these same companies that are expected to be law-abiding to the extent that they’re not presenting information that might result in harming children, and they ‘shall not…exhibit obvious indifference to unlawful behaviour.’ Really? How’s that working out? That’s exactly what they’re doing.
Who’s running this show? Lautischer at AGLC conceded that there’s a lot of advertising being done by illegitimate companies, and that there’s ‘not necessarily’ a penalty for unregulated gambling. So again, who’s really in charge here? The bookmakers with deep pockets? What’s the role of the AGLC, the ‘federal agencies’, and the broadcasters? Apparently, it’s to legalize stuff and then siphon off shares of the profit; stuff that’s okay when ‘enjoyed responsibly’ and brutalizing when used recklessly.