The advergame app ‘Squashies World’, from Swizzels Matlow, seen in January 2018, featured a game in which players matched pairs of Squashies by flicking them towards each other, at increasing levels of difficulty.
The first time players opened the app after it was downloaded they were required to enter their age. Text stated “Squashies World You must be 16 years or over to play this game. Enter your Date of Birth”. Three boxes underneath featured the day, month and year on which the app was opened, which users could change before clicking on an arrow to proceed into the app.
The app’s home page featured images of three Squashies products, with text stating “PLAYTIME”, which took players to the game “CHOOSE A LEVEL”, which allowed players to select a level of difficulty, and “TEASE ME”, which brought up a page with text that stated “Squashies are a delicious range of sweets from Swizzels” with images of packs of different types of Squashies scrolling underneath.
Selecting “PLAYTIME” began an animation which featured cartoon images of anthropomorphised Squashies with text that stated “All is well in Squashies World…Until one day a tornado hit! Help the Squashies find their partners …” followed by instructions on how to play the game.
The advergame was downloadable from the Google Play and Apple app stores, which were linked to via the www.swizzels.com website.
The Children’s Food Campaign (Sustain) challenged whether the Squashies World advergame was an ad for products that were high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS products) that was directed at children.
Swizzels Matlow Ltd said the Squashies World game could be downloaded from app stores and was referenced on the back of some Squashies packs and on the Swizzels website. They did not use paid-for advertising to promote the game and so the chance of consumers finding it through anything other than a specific search for Squashies on the app stores was very slim.
On the packaging, consumers were directed to the Squashies World website, where they landed on a plain red screen with no branding, with the text “How old are you? You must be over 16 years of age to view this page. Please tell us your date of birth below”. After entering their date of birth, website visitors must then click on the “download now” option for the app store they used. On opening the app for the first time consumers were presented with another age gate on a plain screen within the actual game, and the message “You must be 16 years or over to play this game”.
They said that anyone accessing the game therefore would need to get through a minimum of one age gate, and most likely two, because most people would access the game via their website. They felt that the age gate prevented under 16-year-olds from accessing the game. They did not have data on the demographic profile of consumers using the game, but they believed they would be 16 or over based on the restrictions they had put in place. They said the game was very challenging, with 80 levels, and was not designed for under 16s. They recognised that two people who had left reviews of the app described how their children had enjoyed the game, but highlighted that those reviews dated from before the age-gates were added to the website and app.
The app had been given an age-rating of “4+” by the Apple store, and a content rating of “PEGI 3” by the Google Play store. Swizzels Matlow explained that both stores automatically calculated the ratings through a series of questions posed to the developer. Both included a specific question as to whether the app was primarily for kids (under 13 in the Google Play store and age ranges up to 11 in the Apple store). In both cases Swizzels Matlow had confirmed the app was not for children.
The CAP Code required that HFSS product ads must not be directed at children through the selection of media or the context in which they appeared, and that no medium should be used to advertise HFSS products if more than 25% of its audience was under the age of 16. The “Squashies World” game featured images of anthropomorphised Squashies sweets and a section which featured pack shots of the various Squashies products. The app was an advergame for the HFSS Squashies product range, and was therefore an HFSS product ad for the purposes of the Code. The ASA considered that marketers should take reasonable steps to target HFSS product ads appropriately.
The game had not been promoted other than through Swizzels Matlow’s social media for Squashies, on its website, and on packaging. We considered that most consumers who downloaded the game would have become aware of it through those means and that it was unlikely that consumers would have come across it in the app stores unless they were specifically searching for it. Consumers who downloaded the app were therefore likely to be people who had bought Squashies, who were connected with the brand via social media, or who had visited the Swizzels Matlow website to find out more about the company, its brands and products. We considered it was likely that a high proportion of children under 16 had seen the references to the game on the back of Squashies packs in particular.
When visiting the page on the website which described the app and linked to the app stores, website visitors were informed that they must be over 16 years of age to view the page and asked to enter their date of birth. The same age-gate also appeared the first time the app was opened after it was downloaded. We noted it was possible to continue to re-enter new dates of birth after an ineligible date was entered and considered the age-gate was therefore in most cases unlikely to deter children under 16 from continuing.
We acknowledged that Swizzels Matlow had told the app stores that it was not specifically for children, but because it was rated as suitable for ages 3+ and 4+ on those stores, we considered consumers would understand that the app was suitable for children aged under 16. The written description of the app did not use language particularly aimed at children, but we considered that the images of the colourful, cartoon-based gameplay and the overall description of the game were likely to appeal to children.
The game itself was brightly coloured and used a cartoon-style to animate the sweets, some of which wore sunglasses or bows. We considered children would find that overall presentation, along with the initial animation which described the premise of the game, particularly appealing. While some of the later levels of gameplay were quite difficult, the earlier levels were very simple and would be easy for young children to complete. We considered the review comments which referred to children enjoying the game demonstrated the game’s appeal to children.
In light of the above, we considered that the app was not directed at children under 16 through the selection of media. However, we considered that it had considerable appeal to children under 16, and that because of the media in which consumers were directed to it (particularly because it was featured on Squashies packs) and the likelihood that the age-gates would not deter those under 16 from downloading and playing the game, it was likely that a significant percentage of its audience was aged under 16. In that context, we considered it was incumbent on the advertiser to demonstrate to the ASA that children under 16 did not comprise more than 25% of the audience. In the absence of any audience data demonstrating that the app had been appropriately targeted, we concluded it was in breach of the Code.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 15.18 15.18 HFSS product advertisements must not be directed at people under 16 through the selection of media or the context in which they appear. No medium should be used to advertise HFSS products, if more than 25% of its audience is under 16 years of age. (HFSS product ad placement).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Swizzels Matlow Ltd to ensure in future that they did not use any medium to advertise HFSS products if more than 25% of its audience was under the age of 16.