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Gambling in Finland: From vice to national virtue

International rankings place Finns among the happiest people in the world, but one statistic suggests they may have a problem with gambling.

Finland welcomed the weekly lottery, Lotto, in 1976. "Lotto girl" Hilkka Kotamäki sang about the spirit of the game of chance and gave advice to punters. Image: YLE

Despite the long, dark winters, Finland was recently ranked the happiest country in the world. The Finnish state is also considered the least fragile in the world. In 2017, it was ranked second in terms of social progress.

Finland leads in another statistic that may be surprising to some: per capita, Finns rank fourth among the world’s biggest gamblers, spending around €2 billion every year on various games of chance. According to a 2015 report by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Finns wager the most in Europe, with 80 percent of the population gambling in some form every year.

How did betting become so popular in Finland?

Scholars attempting to explain the role of gambling in Finnish culture have proposed an answer that few might expect: nationalism.

The gambling industry in Finland is directly controlled by the state through a government monopoly and for decades, successive governments have channelled the gambling proceeds of the state-owned operators back into Finnish society. These days, the state-owned national betting agency Veikkaus hands over about one billion euros in profit to government ministries and more than €200 million in taxes—nearly two percent of the government budget.

With such a system in place, it’s no wonder that a years-old marketing slogan suggests that, even when you lose a bet, “A Finn always wins.” The idea that gambling losses will still benefit other Finns has meant that despite the moral ambiguity many feel about lotteries and problem gamblers, gambling is still a widespread Finnish pastime. Slot machines, scratchcards, the weekly lottery, and other forms of gambling are familiar fixtures in every grocery store and corner convenience store across the country.

But explaining how gambling attained this status in Finnish culture requires a look at Finland’s history. It is also the burden of much of the work of University of Helsinki researcher Riitta Matilainen.

“What happened that we Finns don't even think about [gambling] anymore? It's a natural part of our everyday lives,” she told Yle News. “How did this happen?”

Matilainen’s research found that the roots of gambling in Finnish culture date back to the early years of the independent republic and the formation of Finnish national identity.

Gambling's chequered history in Finland

Gambling has not always been such an accepted practice in Finland. As in many other cultures, it had generally been viewed as sin or vice. In Matilainen’s research, she explains how attitudes shifted through what she calls "economic nationalism".

While gambling had generally been prohibited, in the 1920s the newly-independent state saw the activity as an opportunity for nation-building. At the time, Finns were betting on lotteries and football pools in Sweden, where they were legal. For historical reasons, tensions over the autonomous Åland Islands, and sports rivalries, this was seen as a problem.

“The Finns didn't want Finnish money to benefit Swedish society. They wanted to keep the gambling money here within the Finnish borders,” Matilainen said. The state legalised money lotteries and betting on horse racing in the 1920s, and various social and welfare organizations founded RAY (Finland's Slot Machine Association) in 1938.

Then came one of the most formative periods for Finnish national identity: the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44). Not only were sports organisations worried that state resources would be diverted as the economy suffered, they were also concerned about the influence and threat of communism within their own ranks and Finnish society.

Keeping Reds out of sports

According to Jukka Ahonen, a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki who has studied this period, the purpose of founding of Veikkaus in 1940—just months after the Winter War—was more than just to organise football pools. He told Yle News that its establishment was a result of cooperation between “social democratic and rightist sport activists” who were trying to “diminish the influence of communists in the Finnish labour sport movement.” Gambling opportunities were used, he said, to allow men to “let off steam” to avoid potential “radicalisation.”

In these times of social unrest and uncertainty, these influential political and social organisations used the gambling monopolies’ practices to maintain a certain social order. The monopolies’ advertising became part of the Finnish state’s war propaganda. Advertisements depicted the victims of the war, and proceeds went toward helping wounded veterans. According to Ahonen, a recurring theme in gambling advertisements has been that of “veterans of war sacrificing their lives or health for the fatherland.”

It is a theme which continues to this day, Ahonen said.

Nationalistic undertone

The gambling monopolies were thus able to align themselves with national causes during some of the most crucial moments in the formation of Finnish national identity. The monopolies, sports organisations, and the state-run media, Yle, all played a role in “taming” the activity of gambling while constructing the narrative of Finnish identity. Linking the current monopoly with this time period, Ahonen sees modern Veikkaus as a “symbolic manifestation of its historic roots.”

Though more overt in the earlier years, the patriotic sentiment has run subtly through modern marketing as the RAY advertisement demonstrates, and as the slogan “A Finn always wins” suggests. “Even today,” Matilainen said, “there is this nationalistic undertone in all Veikkaus advertising.”

There were also darker sides to the messages communicated in gambling advertisements. Along with the nationalistic emphases, the monopolies also used strategies that denigrated perceived outsider groups as in this ad that states 'only the African negro doesn't bet'. 

Vanha veikkauksen mainos.
This ad states that 'only the African negro doesn't bet'. Image: Veikkaus

Veikkaus confirmed to Yle News that this was indeed an advertisement used in the 1940s or 1950s, but said that it “does not represent Veikkaus’ values in any way.”

Advertisements containing such depictions of Africans were common in Finland for decades. This image is far from exceptional, with the black face even being part of some Finnish Christmas traditions. Racist attitudes toward Africans expressed in this advertisement have certainly faded to some extent, but this example shows that gambling marketing, in addition to war-themed patriotism and economic nationalism, appealed to consumers’ ethno-national identity.

Consumption and the common good

In the post-war era, gambling advertising stressed the notion of gambling for the common good. Proceeds from gambling monopolies were, and continue to be, used to support youth programmes, sports, NGOs and more.

The rise of consumer culture coincided with the solidifying of the Finnish welfare state, and gambling revenue provided an important revenue source. According to Matilainen, the state further normalised gambling by education initiatives pushed through state media and the army, aided by the voluminous advertising of the operators. In the 1970s, a Finn who gambled was considered not only a good consumer but a good citizen. More than acceptable, gambling became virtuous.

The weekly lottery, Lotto, was introduced in 1971 and became wildly popular, while slot machines were placed everywhere.

"Totally weird" by international standards

“They were placed in all shops, cafes, gas stations—well, everywhere you can imagine, even in hospitals or workplace canteens,” Matilainen said, noting this is still a unique feature of Finnish gambling culture. “In international comparison it is totally weird that we have slot machines everywhere.”

Story continues after photo

Veikkauksen mainos.
Veikkaus ads have often invoked the support of wounded war veterans to encourage Finns to gamble. Image: Veikkaus

In contrast to most Anglophone countries, the process of normalising gambling as a habit—from sin to vice to virtue to disease—occurred quite early. By the time the other countries experiencing economic liberalisation began seeking additional revenue from gambling in the 1980s and '90s, Finland had years prior already established the activity as beneficial for the common good. And with more than a billion euros in gambling revenue going through the state, that attitude is still pervasive even as awareness of the risks of gambling and its social costs becomes more widely known and debated.

“It was the revenue-desiring and protectionist national state together with the gambling monopolies that taught Finns to gamble in order to support the Nordic welfare state,” Matilainen wrote in her dissertation. “Gambling became a phenomenon strongly anchored in Finnish everyday life.”

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