Gambling sites, influencers openly flout govt advisory

NEW DELHI : More than a dozen celebrities, including top actors, cricketers and other macro and mid-tier influencers, are in potential violation of a government advisory as they continue to appear in advertisements of betting websites and apps and their surrogate news sites.

In October, the information and broadcasting ministry prohibited online betting ads and surrogates on TV and digital platforms. But many popular influencers, such as cricket commentators Sanjay Manjrekar and Aakash Chopra, have been appearing in online gambling ad campaigns for Parimatch News and Betway.

In a video posted on Instagram on 9 November, online betting site Fairplay continued with its ads featuring Ranbir Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Sunil Narine, Mithali Raj, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Eoin Morgan. Actor Esha Gupta was signed on as the online betting app Khelraja’s brand ambassador. Rannvijay Singh Singha and Kevin Pietersen are advertising on Betway’s homepage.

This is despite the ministry’s advisory naming Fairplay, PariMatch, Betway, Wolf 777, and 1xBet. All India Gaming Federation chief executive Roland Lander said the body is trying to create awareness against the menace of illegal gambling websites. “The most problematic aspect of these offshore websites is how they promote and advertise illegal products. We see prominent influencers from sports and entertainment backgrounds endorsing these products,” he added.

The government issued two advisories in June and October to private TV channels as well as digital news publishers and OTT platforms, asking them to refrain from airing advertisements, including surrogate ads of online betting sites, that can cause significant financial and socioeconomic risks for consumers. The companies were asked to remove the ads within two weeks.

“Gambling is illegal in most states. It is misleading to endorse as a legitimate product or service. Since they are promoting something patently illegal, the CCPA can take action against the influencers,” said Delhi-based tech policy and legal consultant Dhruv Garg.

According to industry estimates, the withdrawal of such ads has cost advertisers on TV and other broadcasters at least 1,500 crore a year.

The ministry said offshore online betting platforms were using surrogate news portals with logos that had a striking resemblance to the home pages of gambling sites and these betting platforms were not registered by any legal authority. The advisory, though, does not put a restriction on influencers, as many feel it is the moral responsibility of the influencer community to refrain from appearing in these ads.

Under the Consumer Protection Act, an influencer must take moral responsibility for promoting a product since advertising for an illegal and misleading product is also illegal.

Garg said illegal offshore gambling companies largely use three methods to interact with potential customers. One is by drawing the attention of unsuspecting consumers through advertisements. Two, they use dubious financial channels to huge illicit sums of money from consumers. Finally, they circumvent government monitoring through a huge number of mirror websites.

At least, the efforts to woo consumers can be stopped if broadcasters and people advertising the products do not participate in these campaigns and stop giving such offshore illegal websites any advertising real estate.

Under the Constitution of India, betting and gambling are under the purview of state governments. “If something is clearly illegal, like in this case, a game of chance, how can such an illegal activity be allowed to function so blatantly in any domain?” asked Garg.

Manisha Kapoor, the chief executive of the self-regulatory body, The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), said the posts seem to be in violation of the guidelines of CCPA and fall under the category of ads prohibited by law. “Gambling isn’t allowed by law in most parts of India. I&B ministry has been taking cognizance of the violations. Also, the ministry of consumer affairs is a nodal ministry for all advertising-related issues, and they could also look into this,” she said.

ASCI has specific guidelines for influencers, mandating disclosures, and has tool to monitor their activities. It is also taking up cases on reports of violations. At least 30% of cases in 2021 pertained to influencers. “Influencers and other endorsers are covered under the Consumer Protection Act 2021, and there are penalties laid out in the law. However, because there is no central act related to gambling, there may be some lack of clarity on how some issues are being interpreted by regulators, influencers and platforms,” Kapoor said.

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