Justin McManus
Justin McManus

Gambling has been around for centuries, but technology now makes it more accessible than ever before. Whether you gamble online or on your cellphone, you don’t need to go to a casino. Advertising is also more prevalent, with TV and radio commercials depicting the joys of winning – buying a mansion, going on a trip or retiring early – and making gambling hard to resist for some people.

“I was interested in gambling advertisements and how that might entice people to gamble,” says Justin McManus, a master’s student working with Prof. Karen Gough in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies. “I’m most interested in television advertisements, because I think they might produce the most salient cues of gambling.”

In his research, participants will encounter different types of gambling advertisements in the Guelph-based gambling lab. Using a mock gambling scenario, he will study the ads’ effect on participants’ behaviour, including their emotions and perceptions of luck and their ability to remember the ads.

“I want to look at the interaction between emotion and advertisements,” says McManus, “and how different emotions – when exposed to certain types of advertisements – might lead people to gamble through different motivations.”

He will start recruiting subjects in September.

McManus thinks people with better memory of the ads and stronger belief in their own luck will be more inclined to gamble. “Some people are motivated to gamble for personal enhancement, for positive reinforcement,” he says. “If you’re gambling for reasons to enhance positive emotion, you might be more susceptible to themes within advertisements that are promoting positive emotion and enhancement. If those are tied to relationships with luck, you might be more likely to endorse those as well.”

Enhancement motivations produce positive emotions, he says, but people who gamble as a coping strategy are trying to mitigate negative feelings. Emotionally vulnerable people, such as those with anxiety or depression, may try to alleviate their symptoms by gambling.

Associating gambling with positive feelings makes people more likely to remember the ads they see and to gamble when exposed to certain cues. “Upon viewing advertisements, they’re going to be more likely to notice them,” says McManus. “It’s going to grab their attention more,” making them more likely to be influenced by the ads’ messages about fun and luck.

Access to gambling venues also plays a role in problem gambling behaviour. People who formerly had to drive to a casino can now gamble online. Referring to internal and external influences on problem gambling, McManus says, “It’s a balance between environment and person.”

Social learning theory suggests that we learn behaviours by watching others and by anticipating positive reinforcement for our actions. That’s why gambling advertisements often portray people having fun, being lucky and winning rather than losing. “Luck is interesting, because some people believe they have some quality of personal luck, and if you believe that you have a certain quality or this certain skill or attribute that is lucky, what is the motivation to stop?”

He hopes his research will lead to responsible advertising and public awareness. Scare tactics meant to deter unhealthy behaviour have limited efficacy, says McManus. For example, photos of diseased lungs printed on cigarette packages lose their impact over time. “Clearly these strategies aren’t necessarily breaking the repetitive thoughts and behaviour patterns that are displayed by addictions.”

McManus did his undergrad in psychology at Carleton University, where he studied responsible gambling behaviour and slot machines. At U of G, he received a master’s level studentship and a student research grant from the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre for his thesis on “The Effect of Gambling Advertisements on Memory, Perceptions of Luck and Gambling Behaviour.”