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Mobile game companies use sex ads to attract new users

Mobile game companies are increasingly using misleading and sexualized advertising to acquire new users amid a broader downturn in demand within the games industry.

The UK advertising regulator has uncovered a new trend in game adverts which display sexist and non-consensual sexual imagery and often target vulnerable adults and children.

“This is a more recent issue that we need to look at,” said James Craig, senior regulatory policy officer at the Advertising Standards Authority. “We take any complaints about this very seriously due to the huge issues we have seen. [so far]”.

This month, the ASA banned an ad that ran in mobile gaming 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, who makes Angry Birds 2, said the ad violated its policies and was posted in error. Playorcas, the developers of Infinity 8 Ball, did not respond to the ASA or the Financial Times.

Other recent banned ads included depictions of sexual violence, encouraging users to “slap” or “undress” characters without their consent.

The increase in this trend comes as the broader games sector has been hit by weaker sales and engagement in recent months, as well as a drop in advertising spend. Demand has fallen – following a surge during the pandemic – as gamers return to real-world activities and cut back on spending amid growing inflationary pressures.

So-called “hyper-casual” games, which represent a significant share of the mobile games market, are particularly vulnerable to falling advertising expenditure. These are simple, free games that hold users’ attention for a few minutes each session, building on high user churn gained through online advertising in other games or social networks like Facebook. or Instagram. Hyper-casual games generate revenue primarily by displaying advertisements to users once they download the app.

“Often the ads used for these games are far more sophisticated than the actual gameplay. They tend to contain something with shock value that will make someone stop and pay attention, whether it’s of a disturbing and absurd tale or a scantily clad woman,” said Louise Shorthouse, Principal Games Analyst at Ampere Analysis.

“Having a consumer in-game may be enough for them to benefit. They just need eyeballs, not wallets,” she added.

Mobile game companies have already fallen victim to the ASA for advertising gameplay that does not represent the actual experience when users download the game. But this new explicit category of ads is of greater concern due to harmful tropes that ‘they perpetuate,’ said ASA’s Craig.

It comes as data shows consumers are less willing to pay for mobile games, with spending steadily declining this year. Casual games generate the bulk of in-app ad revenue for mobile games, accounting for more than 60% of the industry in 2021, according to gaming analysts Omdia.

In September, Google will roll out new guidelines on in-game ads, including limiting how long an ad is displayed before users can click on it. Apple has already limited app tracking capabilities, further reducing companies’ ability to serve targeted ads.

“If you can’t target and your clickthrough rates have changed, you get more nefarious players and methods,” Jefferies analyst Andrew Uerkwitz said.

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London