Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
In addition to this guidance, marketers are advised to read our Entertainment: General guidance which provides an overview of the most common pitfalls in media ads with links to guidance.
Violence and Weapons
In untargeted media, advertisers should be careful to ensure that any violent imagery, even when reflective of the content of the film/game, is not excessive or graphic. In 2013, the ASA chose not to uphold a complaint about a video game poster that featured a man holding a gun in each hand, with two people shown hanging upside down from a tree in the background. It considered that the absence of graphic violence meant that the image was unlikely to cause fear or distress to adults or children (Ubisoft Ltd, 9 January 2013).
However, an ad that featured images of a flayed corpse wrapped in barbed wire was considered too gory (Zenimax Europe Ltd, 18 September 2013). In addition, the ASA upheld complaints about a computer game campaign that showed a crying woman, gagged and obviously the victim of violence. The ads included the claim “Grittier and nastier in tone than anything you’ve seen before, the violence here is visceral, brutal and very, very real”. Although the ads portrayed a relevant scene from the game, the ASA concluded that the campaign was socially irresponsible, offensive, distressing and guilty of condoning and glorifying violence (Eidos Interactive Ltd, 9 April 2008).
Marketers should ensure they do not glamorise or condone the use of violence or weapons. As a general rule, marketers should avoid depicting weapons that are pointing directly or aggressively at the viewer because such images can be threatening and can cause unnecessary fear and distress.
Nudity, Sexualisation and Objectification
Objectification and sexual violence are unlikely to be acceptable in ads for games, even if it features heavily in the game itself. The acceptability of any sexualisation and/or violence generally in game ads is likely to depend on the context of the ad.
The ASA has upheld multiple ads for mobile and video games that feature women in an objectifying, degrading, sexualised or dangerous scenarios. In 2021, the ASA upheld an ad for King’s Throne Game of Lust, because they considered the use of female breasts was used to titillate the viewer, and the women were objectified (GOAT Company Ltd, 19 May 2021).
Similarly, in 2021, the ASA investigated an in-app ad for a game called ‘Producer: Choose Your Star’. The ad showed a woman asleep in a chair, and items such as a hook, knife and saw were presented to the player. Each item was picked and gradually removed more of the women’s clothing, until the hook was near her breasts and the woman woke up. The wording “FAILED” then appeared. The ASA considered that she was presented as a passive, voiceless and unresisting figure, and her sole purpose was to provide players an opportunity to remove her clothes. As it presented the woman as a sexual object and condoned the removal of clothing without consent, the complaint was upheld (Rangosious Public Holdings Ltd t/a Amrita Studios, 15 December 2021).
Another ad featured a woman stuck in a fence with her buttocks sticking out with a man watching in the foreground. The player was provided with options that stated “HELP” and “SLAP” whilst the woman was seen in distress and crying. The ASA concluded that the woman was presented as a sexual object, and that the ads trivialised and condoned sexual assault and violence. (OneSoft Studio, 6 July 2022).
Other ads that the ASA have ruled against feature exposed breasts (Playorcas, 17 August 2022 and Higgs Technology Co, 31 August 2022), encouragement of domestic violence (AppQuantum Publishing Ltd, 24 November 2021), sexual assault (Ayoomi Technology Co Ltd, 1 June 2022), depiction of non-consensual sexual activity (SWAG Masha LLC, 19 May 2021) and objectification/sexualisation (ABI Global Ltd, 6 April 2022).
Once again, overt sexualisation, negative depictions and condonement of violence/assault against both women and men are likely to breach the Code. Marketers are encouraged to also see our guidance on Offence: Nudity, Offence: Sex, Harm and Offence: Gender Stereotypes and Sexualisation and Objectification.
Targeting and Children
Video and mobile game ads must be targeted appropriately if they contain elements unsuitable for children, and the ASA is likely to expect advertisers to prove they took all appropriate steps and used all available tools to target the content away from children. For example, when deciding not to uphold complaints against a trailer for the video game ‘Hitman: Absolution’, the ASA took account of the fact that the material was age-restricted to website users who were 18 or over and accessed via a Facebook page or YouTube channel which were specifically about the ‘Hitman’ game (Square Enix Ltd, 26 September 2012).
In addition, when determining whether a TV ad for ‘Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’ was appropriate, the ASA took into account the programme around it, as well as the time and any restrictions on scheduling (Sky UK Ltd, 8 April 2020). Marketers can read more about targeting in our specific Children: Targeting and Targeting guidance.
As well as appropriate targeting, marketers are reminded that additional Code rules apply to advertising addressed to or featuring children. For instance, in line with Section 5 (Children), marketers should not take advantage of children’s credulity, loyalty, vulnerability of lack of experience. When advertising to children with in-app or in-game advertising, it’s often advisable to use brief statements that they can easily understand. That said, brief statements might be problematic if they could be seen to take advantage of credulity or pressurize the player. In 2015, the ASA concluded that the phrase “JOIN NOW!” in the context of the ad was more of a command and pressurized young players to buy membership (Mind Candy Ltd, 26 August 2015).
Children are more credulous than adults, so children might feel pressured by emotive statements such as ‘your game characters need YOU!’, and marketers should avoid this type of statement. Furthermore, direct exhortation to buy anything in game is likely to be unacceptable when aimed at children (55 Pixels Ltd, 26 August 2015).
See also “Misleadingness and other rules” below and our Guidance on Advertising In-Game Purchases for more.
Misleadingness and other rules
The content of ads for games should reflect the product and be representative of the gameplay. If in-play footage is shown, it should be footage from the game in question (Funplus Interactive, 6 February 2019, Funplus Interactive, 20 December 2017 and Rivergame Ltd, 16 November 2022). It is unlikely that ‘cinematic representations’ of the themes of the game will be acceptable (AppQuantum Publishing Ltd, 13 April 2022).
A qualification or small print such as “Not representative of actual gameplay” is unlikely to prevent an ad from misleading consumers. In one ruling, the marketers had included a disclaimer which said that some of the gameplay featured in the ad actually was the gameplay that players would experience. However, the ASA found that the scenes only represented a very small portion of the overall gameplay, and that players had to experience a great deal of other undepicted gameplay before reaching this point. (PLR Worldwide Sales Ltd t/a Playrix, 30 September 2020).
Marketers are also reminded that care should be taken over the use of in-app purchases, and especially should be mindful of time-limited offers, random item purchasing (including things such as “loot boxes”) and pricing. Our Guidance on Advertising In-Game Purchases contains more on this.