Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
An ad for the mobile app game My Fantasy, seen in the mobile app game Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells on 23 December 2022, included an animated video of a female character in lingerie who was depicted to be overweight. A small icon near the bottom left of the video featured the woman with an older man, identified as her husband, who was shown telling her, “Make yourself more sexy”. A label above her head that stated “Your brain age: 22” appeared throughout the ad. The video continued by depicting a hand pointer altering the female character’s appearance, with slider controls that enlarged her lips, reduced her waist and augmented her breasts, with text above the character that stated “IMPROVE YOURSELF”. The result depicted the woman in lingerie with an hourglass body shape, enlarged breasts and lips blowing a kiss. The final scene featured the female character with her husband, who was shown to have an angry expression while the female character was frowning. The husband had a speech bubble in front of him that stated “I’m all for natural beauty”. The ad concluded with an image that showed two young women, with the text “What will you choose?” that gave the options “Hey … Stop it” and “Please continue”.
The complainant, who believed that the ad promoted body-shaming, sexualised and objectified women, and depicted harmful gender stereotypes, challenged whether the ad:
1. was irresponsible, harmful, and offensive; and
2. had been irresponsibly targeted.
1. & 2. GM Unicorn Corporation Ltd confirmed that the ad in question was no longer appearing. They said that My Fantasy was an interactive story app that featured imaginary scenarios related to love and romance. Users were presented with different stories and had to make decisions within them, each with their own consequences. They said the app, besides entertainment, attempted to promote inclusivity, freedom of choice in relationships and the ability to take responsibility. One of the ways it did that was by reflecting stereotypes and socially controversial issues, in order to expose them and allow users to assess them in a humorous, non-judgemental environment.
The complainant had provided the ASA with a series of screenshots of the ad. We therefore asked GM Unicorn for a full electronic copy of the ad. They responded that they were unable to provide the ad in question, however, they sent a copy of a similar video which was labelled “old creative”. GM Unicorn’s comments below relate to the “old creative” video.
They said it exposed and ridiculed, rather than promoted, toxic relationships, body-shaming, sexualising and objectifying women, gender stereotypes, and making poor life choices. Unlike the named main character Emma, her “husband” was nameless because he was intended to represent a stereotype. The husband, who suddenly decided that his wife was not attractive enough, proposed to give her money to make herself more attractive. They said this was intended to expose the stereotype that a man may do practically anything in a relationship and automatically be forgiven if he was rich. The poor conduct continued when Emma happily accepted a credit card and instantly forgot about the insult. The situation was depicted as comically absurd, peaking when the joking text “Improve Yourself” appeared near the icon “Your brain age: 22” which was shown to increase with each decision, such as enlarging her lips to the maximum, making her left breast larger than the right one, reducing her waist to the minimum, and enormously widening her hips. After all these steps were taken, her brain age was increased to 65, to demonstrate how “wise” the hypothetical user had become. This was intended to allude to the “expanded brain” meme. Ironically, her husband then said to her that he was “all for natural beauty” and she was seen to shed waterfall-like tears.
In relation to the targeting of the ad, they considered that the ad was appropriate for distribution to various age categories. While the app was designed primarily for an adult audience, the fantasy love and romance stories featured no explicit content and did not have a sexual theme. They further said that the stories in the app were quite lengthy and comprehensive, which needed prolonged and engaged interaction. That resonated predominantly with an adult audience. The relevant age restrictions were stated in the app’s description on apps stores, as well as the app’s terms and conditions. Furthermore, they said that the app’s style and theme deterred children from downloading and engaging with it. Therefore, even though the app was adult-oriented, they considered that the occasional delivery of age-appropriate ads that did not contain explicit or harmful content was not in breach of the Code, provided there were also deterrents in place that would prevent children from accessing adult-oriented content within the app. It also made no economic sense to target children if the target audience was adult. GM Unicorn referenced three of ASA rulings in support of their arguments.
Zynga Inc., the app developer of Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Chartboost Inc., the ad network that served the ad, provided a joint response.
They explained that third-party ads which appeared in Zynga’s games were typically served into their advertising space using a number of ad networks. The ad in question was served via Chartboost Exchange, their programmatic ad exchange which utilised real-time bidding on advertising space. They said that this process was almost entirely automated, and it was not possible for either Zynga or Chartboost to have advanced sight of, or review, every ad served.
Chartboost said that their contracts with advertisers and other platforms required those parties to ensure that their ads complied with all applicable laws and regulations, including Chartboost’s own policies which prohibited obscene, offensive and indecent content. They also used tools to filter out and block certain ad categories, including provocative or suggestive imagery, and they made tools available to publishers that allowed them to filter out specific ad categories.
Zynga said that they used those tools to block content which they considered inappropriate for the players of their games, taking into account factors such as the target audience of each game, which could be different to the game’s age rating displayed in app stores. In their view, the age rating was just an indication of the gameplay content that was in the game and not a reflection of the actual player base the game was targeted at or who should play the game. Regarding Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells in particular, they said that the player base was predominantly adult, with the target audience aged 18 to 49 years. At the time the ad was served, the blocks on provocative or suggestive imagery and ads under the sexuality, dating and pornography categories should have prevented the ad from appearing in the game. However, they recognised that advertisers had ways to get around blocklists or filters such as misclassifying or renaming their ad, changing its URL, or using an agency.
Zynga said they had received seven complaints about the ad and had blocked it from appearing in the game and other games in their portfolio. Chartboost also confirmed that they had blocked GM Unicorn Corporation’s ads for their apps My Fantasy and Passion: Romance Books Library from being served via their ad exchange.
The ASA noted that the video of the “old creative” that GM Unicorn Ltd had provided, had a number of differences to the ad seen by the complainant, including an increase to Emma’s “brain age” throughout the ad. We therefore based the assessment of the ad on the screenshots sent by the complainant. Nevertheless, we were satisfied that the images provided sufficient content to allow us to make an assessment on the issues raised.
The ad, which was for a game app about interactive roleplaying, including of a sexual nature, featured an animated female character with her breasts partially exposed. In the initial frame of the ad, the female character was shown to be overweight and told by her husband to “Make yourself more sexy”. She was then shown to alter her appearance by plumping up her lips, shrinking her waist and enlarging her breasts, while the text “IMPROVE YOURSELF!” appeared above her head.
We understood that the changes to the character’s appearance alluded to obtaining cosmetic surgery and other cosmetic interventions such as liposuction, breast implants and lip fillers. The text “IMPROVE YOURSELF!” implied that having cosmetic surgery and other interventions was a positive and desirable change, which irresponsibly created pressure to conform to an idealised gender-stereotypical body. Furthermore, the portrayal of the female character changing her appearance to appease her husband amplified a harmful gender stereotype by objectifying women and was likely to cause serious and widespread offence.
We assessed GM Unicorn’s response which stated that the stereotypes depicted in the ad were intended to be satirical. We considered that in the absence of further context of the My Fantasy gameplay, viewers were unlikely to interpret the ad as a self-aware parody. We also considered that the narrative and humour in the ad derived specifically from the use of the gender stereotype. We did not consider that the use of humour in the ad mitigated the effect of the harmful stereotype; indeed it was central to it, because the humour derived from the audiences’ familiarity with the stereotype being portrayed.
We concluded that the ad was irresponsible, likely to cause serious and widespread offence, and included a gender stereotype in a way that was likely to cause harm. The ad therefore breached the Code.
On that point, the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.9 (Harm and offence).
The ad should not have been served in any context because its content was irresponsible, harmful and likely to cause serious and widespread offence.
Notwithstanding that, we understood the advertised game had an age rating of 17+ on Google Play and a sexual theme. In that context, we expected GM Unicorn Corporation to have targeted ads for the game to people aged 18 years and over by using age-verification measures including interest-based targeting factors which described an adult audience and excluded a child audience. We had not seen any evidence that GM Unicorn Corporation had taken steps to target ads for the game away from those under 18 years of age. We therefore concluded that the ad had been irresponsibly targeted.
On that point the ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 1.3 (Social responsibility).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told GM Unicorn Corporation Ltd to ensure that their ads were socially responsible and did not cause serious and widespread offence or harm, for example by exploiting insecurities around body image and objectifying women. We also told them to ensure their ads for games that were not suitable to be played by under 18-year-olds were responsibly targeted.