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An Interview With Cause Marketing Expert, Alessandro Ciaffoncini, On Gambling Addiction: Part I

Welcome to the first installment of our interview with Origo Branding Company President and subject matter expert on gambling prevention, Alessandro Ciaffoncini. In this three-part series, Alessandro will explain his company’s two campaigns for the State of Ohio around problem gambling.

The first initiative, titled Get Set Before You Bet, focuses on the risks of problem gambling amongst adults and how individuals can make responsible and healthy decisions when choosing to gamble. The second campaign addresses the heightened prevalence of gambling amongst youth, outlining how adult influencers can play a positive role in helping youth make the right choices to prevent the risks of problem gambling.

Gambling Campaigns In Ohio

MCADAMHS: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your role in the very successful campaigns, Change the Game Ohio and Get Set Before You Bet. Let’s get started by talking a little bit about your background and what drew your interest in the issue of gambling addiction.

Alessandro Ciaffoncini: Sure! I am currently the President at Origo Branding Company, a strategic communications firm located in Central Ohio. For 36 years, our focus has been on advancing the greater good of populations in need by creating a positive difference for communities through purpose-driven campaigns. Typically, this means working with government and nonprofit clients that are involved in public health and human services. For example, we help develop and manage many campaigns for the State of Ohio, addressing critical topics, such as the domestic violence and child abuse prevention campaign, titled Be A Hero In The Eyes of a Child, for the Ohio Children’s Trust Fund, as well as the opioid abuse prevention campaign for the state, titled Take Charge Ohio, which is led by the Ohio Department of Health. 

For the campaigns [Change the Game Ohio and Get Set Before You Bet], we worked with Ohio for Responsible Gambling, a statewide coalition led by the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, the Ohio Lottery, and the Ohio Casino Control Commission. The coalition really came to fruition when casinos were legalized within our state over a decade ago, as voters in Ohio made it clear that they wanted casinos. But what they might not have considered is that with more forms of gambling, come more chances for problem gambling or negative consequences of gambling within our state. 

To help address this, Ohio for Responsible Gambling was formed under Governor Kasich, and we were brought on board to develop a problem gambling prevention campaign and educational initiative to inform the general public on how to gamble responsibly. As a harm reduction campaign, Get Set Before You Bet, was not meant to be an abstinence message. Instead, the goal is to provide messaging and information, so if you choose to gamble, you are aware of how to make responsible decisions that will help prevent some of the negative consequences of problem gambling. Tips and messaging of the campaign include setting limits, paying your bills before gambling, and keeping it a social activity, rather than a form of income or a way to pay debts. 

The main call to action for the Before You Bet campaign is to drive individuals to take a two-minute self-assessment on the campaign website ( to see if they’re at risk of problem gambling. If they need help, there are resources on the site that they can easily access, such as a helpline, live chat feature, or other resources within their local community. Over the years, this self-assessment has helped to identify specific vulnerable and at-risk populations to message directly to, such as seniors, veterans, and other demographics. 

With Change The Game Ohio, we saw a need to turn our focus on the issue of youth gambling, as our partners and thought leaders in the field have found a growing prevalence in youth and teens engaging in new forms of gambling. This includes the introduction of gambling activities in online gaming, like Fortnite, which offers “loot boxes”, which are randomized prize packages you can purchase, or NBA 2K, where users are tempted to buy randomized player packs that can include a randomized assortment of players, enticing kids to chase their favorite players by continuing to purchase these items. We’ve also noticed gambling behaviors in card games like Magic the Gathering or Pokemon. 

Utilizing these insights, we developed this sub-campaign to target adult influencers and educate them on the new ways that youth are engaging in gambling, and inform them on how they can play an active role in the prevention of youth gambling. 

As an influencer campaign, the main goal is to teach parents about the types of gambling that youth might be engaging in, and how they can address those situations. Preventative resources include parental controls on devices, discussion templates for how they can talk about these issues with their kids, and different changes they can make in their home environment to create a more positive lifestyle for the youth in their lives.

Gambling Methods For Youth

MCADAMHS: Wow, you really wouldn’t think about these games as “gambling” for kids. It’s hard to imagine that playing Pokemon could change behavior so subtly to where it becomes an issue.

Alessandro: Exactly. The motivations for you might be different than, say, motivation for an elementary school or middle school child. Sometimes they’re playing not for monetary currency, but social currency: the feeling of belonging, the feeling of clout, or street cred. Children are in a stage where the brain is in a very sensitive space, and it’s forming foundations that could lead to very dangerous behaviors in the future. In the campaign, we often use the statistic that children who are exposed to gambling from the ages of 12 and under are 4x more likely to develop gambling problems or difficulties in the future. 

The joy and adrenaline of wins, much like gambling, keep kids and adults coming back for more. The chasing of losses in video games also closely resembles the action of traditional gambling activities. Identifying these risks may save someone from manifesting deeper problems later in life.

MCADAMHS: And assuming once they turn 18, they become adults with a little more freedom, and seemingly harmless “gambling” could turn into a problem. Is this something that you commonly see? 

Alessandro: Yes, there’s a little bit more at stake, and they have a little bit more freedom. More freedom means the chance to make even bigger mistakes – rather than just betting away a pair of shoes or your lunch when you were a kid. 

We did focus groups with youth-led coalitions and looked at different studies, and found that while kids are betting with money, it is not always in ways that are obvious, like in-game purchases or “microtransactions”. Think of it this way: it used to be that you buy a video game for $50, and the transaction was over. Now, video games are offered for free, but there are in-game purchases that you can make, such as loot boxes and player packs, to get upgrades in the game. They seem like small purchases, but they add up and have led to a multi-billion dollar gaming industry just in these in-game microtransactions. For example, if I’m playing FIFA, and I want to get one of my favorite superstars, then I’ll keep paying for randomized player packs until I get him. The fees keep piling up and there is no guarantee that I will even ever get that player!

What does this mean for parents? Let’s say your kids are playing NBA2K and they want a specific player. Not thinking of the potential consequences, and wanting to be a “fun” parent, you give the kids your credit card to buy a player pack. Then the credit card gets saved into the game even after you leave and the kids keep buying small purchases for the game, as they may not understand the real value of money yet. You don’t notice this is happening, until one day, your card gets declined at the grocery store. So, in real life, things of real monetary value can be lost, even before the age of 18.

Video Gaming Counts As Gambling

MCADAMHS: So the video game industry has really revolutionized its profit model.

Alessandro: Video game companies have made more profit in recent years from giving away their games at $0 and encouraging in-game purchases. Let’s say I want to get a cool new costume for my character, new armor, or a new weapon. Well, I can play seven hours to get enough skill points to earn the new item, or I could buy a “loot box” for $1, or 10 for $5, 20 for $10, and so on. They make billions in profits off these in-game activities, or what they call “microtransactions”. 

That’s how this new form of gambling has manifested. And that’s what this campaign, Change The Game Ohio, is all about. We use imagery of scenes recognizable to parents, like their kids sitting in a trance in front of their device, and we ask them, “Do you really know what’s happening in those games your kids are playing?” Everyone talks about violence and sexuality in games, as well as the dangers of too much screen time, but what they should also be focusing on is how gambling has made its way into gaming and how it is conditioning the minds of our youth.

When talking to parents in our focus groups, they were shocked because they didn’t realize how kids were being conditioned by these games. It’s a huge surprise to them that games can have elements of gambling and that kids can use their credit cards to purchase in-game transactions that resemble betting.

MCADAMHS: It’s probably so new for most parents because that’s not what they grew up with. Do you think that youth gambling will become more prevalent as technology develops and becomes even more accessible?

Alessandro: Yes, although I’d like to preface this by saying this is my opinion based on my own experience, so experts may say otherwise. 

As you know, the video gaming and online gaming industries have found a revenue model that guarantees there is no profit ceiling. As long as there are these microtransaction and in-game reward systems, like loot boxes, driving a lot of excitement, kids – and adults – will continue to play. The games are also intentionally designed to make these loot boxes really exciting. For example, if you watch the loot box open, it has the same kind of sounds and colors as a slot machine. It is very stimulating to the eye, even when you win something that’s kind of good, but not really the thing you were looking to get. It kind of teases you in a way to make you want to buy more loot boxes, much like a slot machine or other gambling activities.

Video games are also becoming such a significant part of popular culture for teens and youth, so they’re going to stay relevant. Let me give you an example. I was at the National Conference for Problem Gambling, and they were talking about the 15 top influencers for teens. I only knew a few of them – Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift – but 12 of them were YouTube vloggers. 80% of which were video game streamers. They record themselves playing; they review games; they collaborate with other gamers. There are now gaming leagues – recreational, collegiate, and professional, and there are even academic degrees you can get in professional gaming.

When we were younger, we would look up to movie stars, and these younger generations are now looking up to individuals that they can relate to. Other individuals are in their homes and playing video games, just like they are, whether it be for fun, socializing, or sheer escapism. They connect more on a peer level with these personalities.

The sky’s the limit in terms of what gaming companies can make with these new revenue models and in-game purchases, and the risks have just begun to show.

MCADAMHS: I wonder if parents are confused as to why their children enjoy video games so much, but when you outline the strategies used by game designers, it becomes clear why they are so engaging to kids.

Alessandro: It’s a way to step out of real-life, to be somebody else. There’s a sense of belonging that youth and teens really need. They’re connecting with their friends and communicating with them through the games. It’s also important to them in their social circles. The level they are in games is like how someone may feel about their position on a sports team they’re on and how successful they are in that sport. It’s simply competitiveness and the desire for social clout that’s ingrained in many of us.

It is important to note that Change The Game Ohio started centering on video gaming and its relation to gambling, but the initiative also focuses on the rise in traditional forms of gambling as well, such as sports betting and fantasy sports. It is common for many of us to find these forms of betting innocent. For example, I know many dads who set up March Madness brackets with their kids or have their children help them set up their lineup for their fantasy football team, and so on.  It could be considered a bonding experience, but a lot of the time, it is conditioning kids to experience the excitement of gambling at a very young age.

When conducting focus groups amongst parents, educators, and youth, gambling for kids was sometimes about money, but also about street cred or “clout”. Gambling can also come in the forms of simple dares, such as “I bet I can jump from this car to that car” – which can result in dangerous consequences. In our focus groups, we bring up examples like this and ask the subjects if they would consider this gambling. Oftentimes, they don’t realize situations like these qualify as gambling. It takes someone explaining it and it takes education for people to become aware of the potential problems. 

Join us for Part II of our discussion on youth gambling with Alessandro, coming soon! Learn more about the risks and effects and find resources for problem gambling at Change the Game Ohio and Get Set Before You Bet.