Why is online ‘gaming’ fun, but ‘gambling’ is shady?

Changing an industry label from "gambling" to "gaming" affects how consumers think about betting online. "We found that how you label an industry really matters," says Kathy LaTour. (Credit: Benjamin Watson/Flickr, Font by Tension Type)

Whether you think online betting is innocent entertainment or a shady activity may have to do with what you call it, according to a new study that shows how industry labels help shape consumer attitudes.

“Changing an industry label from gambling to gaming affects what consumers, especially nonusers, think of betting online,” write Kathy LaTour, associate professor of services marketing at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, and Ashlee Humphreys of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, in a study published online in the Journal of Consumer Research.


“A label like gaming prompts all sorts of implicit associations like entertainment and fun, while a label like gambling can prompt seedier implicit associations like crime.”

LaTour and Humphreys analyzed media descriptions of online, lottery, and casino gambling between 1980 and 2010 in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

They then analyzed coverage of “Black Friday,” April 15, 2011, when the federal government shut down the three largest online betting sites.

Newspapers shifted how they described the online activity, framing it more as a crime, which led to a shift in consumer judgments about the legitimacy of online casinos, especially among nonusers.

Following the switch, a clear pattern emerged—that lotteries and casinos were associated as legitimate forms of entertainment and business, while online gambling was associated more with crime and regulation.

Rags to riches or get rick quick

To better understand individuals’ sometimes-unconscious judgments about gambling, the authors conducted two experiments. They found that “rags-to-riches” narratives prompted favorable associations while “get-rich-quick” narratives prompted unfavorable associations.

In a stronger test of their hypothesis, the authors changed only one word in the narratives—using gambling or gaming—and found that the gaming label caused nonusers to judge online betting as more legitimate.

This is the first study to examine framing from a macro level, analyzing effects in the media over time, and a micro level, showing the impact an industry name has on consumer perceptions.

“We found that how you label an industry really matters. This is especially true for nonusers or individuals who are not as familiar with the industry,” LaTour says.

The research also has important implications beyond online betting, the authors write.

“There is great promise for using theories and methods from linguistics and rhetoric to understand consumer behavior. Labeling can equally work in the interest of opponents to an industry.

“Consider the case of fracking. Although industry actors have searched for a replacement term, the practice of extracting energy from below the earth’s surface has become known as fracking, which carries with it rhetorical connotations of fracturing naturally existing rock.”

Cornell, Northwestern University, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, funded the research.

Source: Cornell University