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The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to problem gambling prevention.

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RG = Prevention = Persuasion

Responsible Gambling = Prevention = Persuasion

This article is part of the Perspective series by the Responsible Gambling Council, which is intended to inform policy makers and industry leaders as they consider changes to the responsible gambling safety net.

Also in this series: Time to Shift Gears | Working with a Creative Agency

By Jon Kelly, Ph.D.

Responsible gambling programs are mostly about prevention – about helping people avoid a gambling problem. And, as I spelled out in my last article, prevention comes with its own lens, which is quite different from the problem gambling (or treatment) lens.

Being knowledgeable about problem gambling is, of course, essential. And most of us in the RG field have a good understanding of concepts like the chase, self-exclusion and pre-commitment. When we think about prevention, the big challenge is not what we know about problem gambling. Rather, the challenge comes in knowing how to promote personal and institutional change—in other words, the art and science of persuasion.

That means that our research base has to expand from problem gambling to domains like persuasion, communications, marketing, behavioural economics and the tools of influence. It means setting aside the problem and focusing on the audience, or more accurately, audiences.

The Competition

There is a temptation to approach our job as if all other variables were somehow neutral. But they are not. We have competition.

Our competitor, ourselves

Let’s start with the biggest and most important competitor—ourselves. Human beings are complex and our behaviours are only partially understood. What we do know is that personal change is difficult, even for seemingly small changes.

We often underestimate the magnitude of the changes we are seeking from people who do not have a gambling problem.

We have a pretty good sense of the magnitude of changes involved when it comes to helping someone recover from a gambling problem. But, I believe we often underestimate the magnitude of the changes we are seeking from people who do not have a gambling problem—i.e., the prevention audiences.

When we ask people to look at gambling a different way, to set a budget and walk away when they reach it, what we are asking is bigger than we think.

What prevention communications, nudges, and other programs or strategies are doing is asking people to change their behaviours, attitudes or beliefs—which are not typically passing whims or casual ways of doing things. We get very comfortable with the way we live, act and think.

A blizzard of misinformation

The competition for prevention messaging also includes a blizzard of misleading and false information about a wide range of health and safety matters. A belt that vibrates away stomach fat. A pill that removes varicose veins. Essential oils to change your mood. Lucky numbers. Hot streaks. Cold machines.

Counter information—messaging that is simply bogus, and often not healthy—is pervasive. If people believe the falsehoods, that’s one challenge. If people disregard them, that’s another challenge—because the result is a deep skepticism and a tendency to block out all information, useful or otherwise.

Looking through a prevention lens, we have a formidable challenge—a vast and complex array of information that people either ignore or never see in the first place. We have a skeptical, disinterested market surrounded by noise. But given our objective, we have no choice but to wade into the fray and attempt to be heard through the noise and clutter.

Gambling advertising and promotions themselves are part of the competitive environment. For most people who gamble, advertising and promotions are a benign reminder or enticement to play. For those with problems, they can be triggers or overwhelming urges. And sometimes, the ads and promotions veer into territory that is either misleading or just bad messaging. I am sure we can all think of examples, but here is just one surprisingly common practice: displaying past winning numbers above a roulette table.

Strategy: More than Just Sharing Information

The core challenge with any campaign or program designed to influence beliefs, attitudes or behaviours is to find a way to change people’s minds. This is true of a political campaign, a marketing strategy, a lobby effort or any attempt to promote personal or institutional change.

Successful persuasion usually requires a specific, well-articulated strategy. (I say usually, because there are certain circumstances where the demand is so powerful that simple information is enough. Avoiding poison is one example. Protecting our kids from choking is another.) 

Unlike child-protection information or weight loss advice, responsible gambling information is not in demand. People who gamble do not see themselves as at risk, or on their way to a problem. And, for the most part, they are right. 

If we look at everyone through a problem gambling lens—i.e., focus too much on the problem—we undermine our own impact.

People who gamble do not see themselves as at risk, or on their way to a problem.

Segmentation: Who Are We Trying to Talk To?

The responsible gambling safety net has many strands—no campaign or initiative can approach all of them. We need to choose the particular strand we want to build or reinforce. That means segmentation—identifying whom we want to influence. Persuasion strategies must begin with segmenting the audience.

A few years ago one of the communications firms we worked with suggested we build a persona, a specific profile of the quintessential person we want to speak to. Not just their age, sex or education, but the whole person, so we know who we’re talking to. It was an important challenge for us and proved very useful.


How do they spend their days? Where do they congregate? What do they like to do? As an example, we know that young sports bettors are more likely to go out to watch games. So in one campaign, we had street teams handing out promotional material at sporting events.

Modes of communication

It is fairly obvious that if you want to communicate with a certain group you should know their preferred mode(s) of communication. What are their media habits? What technologies do they use? What time of day?


It is also very important to know what they think about gambling and what words they use. If they use the word betting, don’t use gambling. Use their language.

Getting Attention: Will They Listen?

If you have a disinterested audience, the biggest challenge is attracting attention. You need a hook. The hook could be a compelling medium (like a live show for high school students, as we do with Game Brain in Ontario), or a staff person with an outgoing personality, or a prop, such as the open slot machine used at our resource centres at gaming venues. Giveaways are a tried-and-true tactic that works well.

PlaySmart Centre Slot Demo
The slot machine demonstration at our resource centres is a tactile conversation starter that gets patrons' attention.

Or what about sex? A few years ago, we did a youth-focused awareness campaign whose approach was to compare safer sex and safer gambling. As part of that campaign, we gave away 50,000 poker chips in condom wrappers. They certainly got attention.

Any attempt to get attention to a set of messages runs into the question of appealing to the intellect or to the emotions. Daniel Kahneman, in his tour de force book Thinking, Fast and Slow, discusses in considerable detail our two systems of taking in information – System 1 is the fast, intuitive and emotional system and System 2 is the slower, deliberative and rational system. Persuasion techniques must, ultimately, address both of these systems. Yet, we often see attempts to persuade that rely on rational appeals in the hope that simply “knowing the truth” will cause people to override their emotional inclinations or deep-seated drives.

After many years of crafting prevention strategies, I am highly skeptical of appeals to rationality only.

To illustrate, here’s an example of a social marketing campaign from 2014 that got attention. This one focused on the concept of chasing—because it is really difficult to have a gambling problem if you don’t chase your losses. The centrepiece of this was a video showing a boxer getting beaten—it shows him up close, bruised, sweaty and exhausted.

The intent was to hit people “in the gut” with the idea that perseverance—chasing losses—does not pay off in gambling. And it worked—our evaluation showed a strong and sustained response to the message. (Our second iteration of the Stop the Chase campaign, currently in market, builds on the idea that chasing losses doesn't pay off.) 

Message Acceptability: Will They Believe You?

Our experience in communications at RGC has taught us again and again the importance of the fit between the message and the audience. It does little good to have a message that is technically right but is rejected by the audience. When we were putting our Stop the Chase campaign together, we tested quite a number of approaches as we always do. (Usually about 50 concepts don’t see the light of day for every one that does.) Here is an example of an ad concept that did not work.

You may remember a famous Winston Churchill quote at a commencement speech. The line is: “Never, never, never, never give up.” So, we flipped the script and showed Churchill saying, “Always, always, always give up.” Again, the idea here was to show people perseverance doesn’t pay off when gambling.

In testing, it was a total flop. Why? Because it ran against the common narrative that if you have a dream, and you persist, you will be successful.

So, we flipped the script and showed Churchill saying, “Always, always, always give up.”

The message conflicted with young people’s beliefs so much that they rejected the idea completely. (It didn’t help, of course, that the young people on our focus group had no idea who Winston Churchill is.) In the end, we were still able to use the idea of misplaced perseverance but we had to find a way to present that concept in a form that would not be rejected by the audience and, in turn, undermine our impact.

Let me share with you another take on this idea of acceptability. In 2014, at our annual Discovery conference (an event about responsible gambling that we host), I had the opportunity to interview Daniel Negreanu, arguably Canada’s most successful poker player. I asked him if he has come across players with gambling problems, and he said he has. What would he say to them, I asked, to help keep them from losing control?

His answer was very interesting. He talked about taking a disciplined approach to the game, doing your homework and paying attention to bankroll management. He said he would explain to them how he calculated his wins and losses in terms of an hourly rate (like a job). He also pointed out that you need to continuously assess what you are doing and feeling while you are playing. He spoke about chasing not as something that leads to a gambling problem, but as bad gambling practice (because you make poor decisions when you’re chasing).

Negreanu talked about taking a disciplined approach to the game, doing your homework and paying attention to bankroll management.

What he said are essentially RG tips (see for example Know the Signs, our prevention week campaign in Ontario that asks people to listen to themselves.). But Daniel brought a different perspective—he circumvents the problem gambling lens and thereby undercuts the normal resistance to problem oriented messaging. Of course, the speaker matters here. We could not simply adopt this type of language and approach. But it does show that we have work to do in aligning our messaging with the experience of people who gamble.

Message Clarity: Do They Get It?

When I look at many of our messages in this sector compared to others, I often think we are overly complex. We ask too much of the audience. For example, we ask people to be cautious about gambling if they are upset or stressed. We ask them to set a limit and play within it. These are actually quite complex messages that require personal insight or analysis.

It may well be time to take a critical look at our messaging and ask ourselves if we could make our communications simpler.

It would be very helpful if we could come up with a gambling meta-message like, don’t drink and drive, use a condom, keep off the grass, or no diving. There are many benefits to this, including ease of repetition to create top-of-mind awareness, and a clear focus on behaviour that does not require analysis or a lot of reflection.

Labels: Do They Feel Judged?

I am sure you would agree that the terminology we use is very important. We know that there is considerable stigma associated with problem gambling. We know that most gamblers believe that responsible gambling is a way of telling other people how we believe they should act. (And if you don’t do as we suggest, you are irresponsible.) We need to work around these barriers if we want to be more impactful.

Many of the words we use present problems in themselves. Phrases like problem gambler, compulsive gambler, addict, or pathological gambler are shortcuts with overtones that are unnecessarily labeling and judgemental.

Our staff, particularly those who work on site at gaming venues, know to avoid these terms. And, we have found them entirely unnecessary in player and public communications.

A Final Word: It's About More than Words

Something else that sometimes gets overlooked is that persuasion is not just about communications. It is also about integrating play safeguards into the player experience. Thaler and Sunstein’s concept of the nudge is really valuable in this regard. Nudging is essentially framing the player’s options in a way that promotes healthier or safer choices—i.e., making it easier to make good choices—like moving ATMs off the gaming floor. 

More recently there has been a lot of interest and experimentation with limit setting or pre-commitment. Some of this work is, in fact, nudging players toward safer decisions by setting default limits. (With a nudge, the limit is not mandatory: it’s simply the default. People can change it—but it turns out that people are inclined to keep the default in place, as many of us know from our own experience.) There are a lot of opportunities to use more nudges in the gaming environment—specifically because they don’t take away personal choice.