Last update: 23rd June 2020
A recurring theme in the history of online bingo is that of the celebrity endorsement, where a celebrity is hired to be the face of a bingo brand on its web site, in its TV advertising and often on social media as well. Bingo sites cannot just hire any celebrity they like though; they have to abide by the rules the Advertising Standards Authority has set. This means that celebrities who are or look under 25 are not allowed in any advertising or publicity (including social media) for gambling products – the only exception is for celebrity sports stars and they can only be featured on a website where a bet can be placed directly on them (so not in any off-site advertising or social media postings). In their use of celebrities, operators also have to be careful not to fall foul of any of the other rules regarding gambling advertising; some of the things which are not allowed are any association with youth culture, any implied link between gambling and enhanced attractiveness, or any suggestion that gambling could be a solution to financial problems or provide an escape from personal problems.
But do bingo celebrity endorsements really work?
One bingo celebrity endorsement that is familiar to almost everyone – including people who have zero interest in either celebrities or bingo – is the Queen of Bingo. Barbara Windsor’s long standing association with Jackpot Joy began back in 2010 immediately after her role in EastEnders came to an end, and although she has now been replaced by Paddy McGuinness of Take Me Out, the associated TV ad showed her being packed off on a long holiday, leaving the way open for her to return at some point in the future.
The Queen of Bingo really is as good as it gets as far as bingo celebrity endorsements go. Barbara Windsor is a national treasure who personifies the lighthearted innuendo and entertainment of the Carry On films she starred in long ago, and Jackpot Joy got a huge amount of mileage out of this in a string of amusing TV adverts featuring the recurrent and mildly risque “blue balls” joke.
The second most well known bingo celebrity endorsement is probably Verne Troyer at BGO, as The Boss. This partnership began in 2014 and continued – despite some trouble with the ASA – until his sudden death in April 2018 at the age of just 49. The actor and comedian, who was otherwise most famous for his role as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films, played a casino owner whose style is best described as blingtastic. He didn’t just appear in the TV ads either – almost every promotion on the bgo site was accompanied by a different suitably themed photo of the Boss and a recurrent theme was “beat the Boss”.
The Queen of Bingo and the Boss were both memorable characters (played by celebrities) who focused on the entertainment value of gambling, keeping it lighthearted and fun and not taking it too seriously. Not only did this apparently resonate with players, but keeping it fun is also an important part of the responsible gambling message. As the Senet Group say, when the fun stops, stop.
It is possible to get this kind of approach badly wrong though – as seen at Winner Bingo back in 2015. Their fake celebrity Mr Winner (played by comedian Sanderson Jones) was obviously supposed to be funny. Indeed, when someone complained to the ASA about a TV ad where Mr Winner stripped down to a pair of gold lame hot pants after his sidekick (Vicky, a talking stuffed owl) said his clothes would come off when someone won the complaint was not upheld; the ASA considered the ad to be too “humorous and surreal” to be making a connection between gambling and sexual success. On the other hand, viewers also seem to have considered the ad to be too humorous and surreal and the character of Mr Winner now only survives in the name of one of the bingo rooms.
Returning to the subject of BGO, the Boss was not always the face of the bingo there – when the bingo product was relaunched on the Virtue Fusion platform in summer 2015, Paris Hilton was brought in. The socialite and heiress certainly has an interesting history with both casinos and product promotion – she was banned from the Wynn Las Vegas casinos back in 2010, around about the same time she was sued for $35 million by a hair extensions company whose product she was under contract to promote, for allegedly wearing a different brand of hair extensions and failing to show up at the product launch party due to being in jail at the time. The Paris Hilton TV ads for BGO showed the Boss returning from holiday to find the casino redecorated in pink and free spins being handed out courtesy of Ms Hilton and although this struck the right sort of comedic note, Ms Hilton was basically playing herself rather than creating a memorable character.
Other celebrity endorsements where it’s been all about the celebrities themselves rather than created characters have also been hit and miss. There are quite a few cases where the celebrity has appeared in a TV ad and given permission for their picture to be used on site, had a positive reaction from fans but hasn’t had a great deal of involvement beyond that – for instance, Vinnie Jones fronting the now defunct Daily Star Games and Louise Redknapp in the Mecca Bingo 2016 TV ad. Paris Hilton’s return to bgo in summer 2018 looks to be similar.
In other cases, celebrities have provoked more of a negative reaction. For example, Mel B’s debut as the face of Costa Bingo was described as cringeworthy by HuffPost. The “Jackpots so big, it’s scary” campaign cost £12 million and this was mostly spent on the TV advertising campaign, although there were a few photos of the former Spice Girl on the site and a free Flash game where you had to help a cartoon version of her collect gems, to win Diamonds (from the loyalty scheme).
Another example is that of Peter Andre – who has promoted not one but two bingo sites. The TV ad he fronted for Gala Bingo in 2012 was featured in Campaign (the weekly magazine for advertising industry professionals) as Turkey of the Week and described as “a lesson in how not to make TV advertising”. It was a different story in 2015, however, when he partnered with Wink Bingo for the Hearts of Gold charity event which raised over £50,000 in the course of a few months: since he was essentially promoting the charity rather than the bingo site no-one had a bad word to say about it.
Perhaps the most controversial choice of celebrity host for a bingo site was Kerry Katona. Ms Katona already had endorsements of Bingos.co.uk and Bingo Giving under her belt when she agreed to front Bingo With Kerry for 8 Ball Games. Several tabloid newspapers subsequently ran a story about Liz Karter, a gambling therapist, basically saying that a double bankrupt with a history of mental health issues is not a suitable person to be promoting an online gambling site. This would certainly have resulted in a large number of readers becoming aware of the existence of Bingo With Kerry who otherwise would never have heard of it – an illustration of the old adage that even bad publicity is good publicity. Whatever one may think about the suitability of Ms Katona for promoting gambling as entertainment, it cannot be denied that she put a considerable amount of time and energy into her endorsement of Bingo With Kerry in the form of tweeting about the site, participating in the chat and even giving players the opportunity to win a date with her.
The most puzzling choice of celebrity, though, has to be Foxy Bingo’s £10 million 2017 rebranding exercise with Hollywood actress Heather Graham as the new face of the site. Foxy already had a “celebrity” every bit as fun as the Queen and the Boss in the shape of the fox himself – a cheeky chappie who appeared in many years’ worth of TV ads featuring song and dance numbers. The fox was as British as fish and chips and as 90 ball bingo and it really didn’t matter that no-one knew the identity of the person (or most likely the people) in the suit (a bit like the Stig on Top Gear) – so spending all that money to reverse engineer such a fun, memorable character into an American actress with no obvious association with bingo (but a clear association with a different meaning of the word foxy) seems a very odd decision. Perhaps the poor fox was no longer considered sufficiently upmarket? Or maybe the aim was to reposition the fox as a more adult character to avoid any difficulty over possible appeal to children?
At least no bingo site has yet gone so far as to try a bit of negative celebrity endorsement, as was allegedly done with some of the cast of Jersey Shore. The Situation was reportedly offered cash NOT to wear Abercrombie & Fitch while Snooki was said to have been gifted with a selection of luxury handbags, not by the makers of the handbags but by rival handbag firms keen to ensure that their competitors got the poor publicity.
Taking this route allows bingo sites to have celebrities associated with their brand without going so far as to have a celebrity as a front person. Gala Bingo for instance had a deal with Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway involving a regular “Win The Ads” bingo promotion. Gala also has some full-on TV tie-in bingo rooms (the first of which was the Coronation Street bingo room) and this type of arrangement can be beneficial for the TV show as well as for the bingo operator. The actors from the TV show would only be involved if they agreed to participate in special promotions (such as the VIP Coronation Street and Emmerdale set tours which Gala gave a prizes).
Foxy Bingo has previous with this type of celebrity involvement as well – in autumn 2015 a big deal with The Only Way Is Essex was announced. This was going to include special TOWIE promotions, TOWIE themed bingo rooms and TOWIE slots – and for a while, it did. There was even a TOWIE Advent Calendar. After a few months, however, it all started to fade away without fanfare. It seems the TOWIE theming was not as popular with players as expected – or possibly there was an issue with the ASA rules regarding youth culture or celebrities appearing to be under 25? Now, not even the TOWIE slot is left on site.
Apart from the Gala Bingo soap tie-ins, the more successful TV tie-ins seem to be with shows that have synergy with the online gambling space either by including a gambling element – quiz shows such as Deal Or No Deal – or by offering the opportunity to bet on the results – talent shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and reality shows such as Big Brother. Mecca Bingo‘s long standing deal with the X Factor is a good example of this and so are the many TV branded Slingo sites operated by Gaming Realms, including Deal Or No Deal Casino. TOWIE doesn’t fall into this category because although it is a reality show, it is non competitive and there are no results to bet on. Nor does it really even have any genuine celebrities (the cast of TOWIE are basically famous for being famous).
Recent TV tie-ins that have been announced certainly give credence to this theory. Sky Bingo’s Tipping Point bingo game is basically a re-skinned version of Rainbow Riches Bingo with a bonus game themed on the TV show. Jackpot Joy‘s new front man, Paddy McGuinness, is the host of TV dating show Take Me Out; the corresponding bingo game has already proved itself popular in its many years on the site.
The gold standard for this type of tie-in has to be I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here – a competitive reality show with celebrities you can bet on which includes mini game shows such as Bush Tucker Trial. It really has got the lot! The show was previously sponsored by Iceland Bingo and one of the highlights of that was the play at home Bush Tucker Trial frozen food box that could be won. In 2017, Tombola sponsored I’m A Celebrity and not being part of a network, they were completely free to create their own promotions with some very big prizes on offer.