Mobile gaming companies are increasingly using misleading and sexualized advertising to acquire new users amid a broader slowdown in demand within the gaming industry.
The UK’s advertising regulator has attacked a new trend in game ads showing non-consensual, sexist sexual imagery and often targeting vulnerable adults and children.
“This is a newer issue that we need to look at,” said James Craig, senior executive for regulatory policy at the Advertising Standards Authority. “We take any complaints about this very seriously due to the huge problems we have seen [so far]”.
This month, the ASA banned an ad from being displayed within the mobile game. angry birds 2which included an animated woman playing pool in a denim shirt that exposed her breasts to promote the game Infinity 8 Ball. Rovio, what are you doing? angry birds 2, said the ad violated their policies and had appeared in error. Playorcas, the developers of infinity 8 Ball, it did not respond to the ASA or the Financial Times.
Other recently banned ads included depictions of sexual violence, encouraging users to “slap” or “undress” characters without consent.
The increase in this trend comes as the broader gaming sector has been hit by weakening sales and engagement in recent months, as well as a decline in ad spend. Demand has fallen, after surging during the pandemic, as gamers return to real-world activities and cut spending amid rising inflationary pressures.
So-called “hypercasual” games, which make up a large chunk of the mobile gaming market, are particularly vulnerable to falling ad spend. They are simple and free games that capture the attention of users for a few minutes in each session, supported by a high rate of user abandonment acquired through online advertising in other games or social networks such as Facebook or Instagram. Hypercasual games generate revenue primarily by showing ads to users once they have downloaded the app.
“Often the ads used for these games are much more sophisticated than the actual game. They tend to contain something with shock value that will make someone stop and pay attention, whether it’s a disturbing, nonsensical narrative or a scantily clad woman,” said Louise Shorthouse, senior gaming analyst at Ampere Analysis.
“Involving a consumer in the game may be enough for them to benefit. They just need eyes, not wallets,” she added.
Mobile game companies have previously violated the ASA for advertising games that do not represent the actual experience when users download the game. But this new and explicit category of ads is a bigger concern because of the harmful tropes they perpetuate, said ASA’s Craig.
It comes as data shows consumers are less willing to pay for mobile games, with spending steadily falling this year. Casual games generate the largest share of mobile game app ad revenue, accounting for more than 60 percent of the sector in 2021, according to gaming analysts Omdia.
In September, Google will implement new guidelines around in-game ads, including limiting the amount of time an ad can be displayed before users can click it. Apple has already limited the tracking capabilities of apps, further reducing the ability of companies to deliver targeted advertising.
“If you can’t aim and your click rates have changed, you get more nefarious players and methods,” said Andrew Uerkwitz, an analyst at Jefferies.
Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London