Summary of Council decision:
Three issues were investigated, of which two were Upheld and one Not upheld.
Two in-game ads, a pre-roll YouTube ad and a digital outdoor ad promoted the film "Annabelle", rated 15.
a. An in-game ad, which appeared on the "Planet of Cubes" app, opened with a shot of two houses at night, and the sound of a scream. A woman was then shown waking her husband and saying, "John, next door, I heard a scream." The next scene showed the woman walking through the house and looking up to see another woman holding a doll and whispering, "I like your dolls" while a man whose clothes were covered in blood walked through a door behind her. The woman said, "Just, just take whatever you want and just, just get out." Other scenes included the woman who was holding the doll slumped against a wall covered in blood, some of which dripped into the doll's eye; a woman being dragged across the floor screaming; and a child running towards a woman through a doorway while the woman asked, "Who are you?", before transforming into a woman in a blood-stained dress as she reached the door and attacking the other woman.
b. The same ad appeared on the "Wordfeud" app.
c. The same ad appeared as a pre-roll ad on YouTube before a Pokémon film. It also included a section at the beginning which displayed the text, "BEFORE THE CONJURING THERE WAS ANNABELLE", and which showed a doll with blood dripping from its eye.
d. A digital outdoor poster, which was seen at London Bridge train station. Text stated, "BEFORE THE CONJURING THERE WAS ... ANNABELLE". A picture of a doll's face appeared, with the text "Miss Me?".
Four complainants, some of whose children had seen the ads, challenged whether the following ads were likely to cause fear or distress, and had therefore been irresponsibly placed:
1. ads (a) and (b);
2. ad (c); and
3. ad (d).
1. & 2. Warner Bros Entertainment UK Ltd said that the ad was prepared and edited to reflect the themes of the film and to ensure that they accurately alerted viewers to the nature of the film since little could be gleaned from the title of the film. They said the ads featured mildly scary images and rapidly changing dark scenes, rather than disturbing or distressing imagery, and relied on suggestion, rather than the use of graphic images to convey the genre of the film. They said the more dramatic scenes were not overly graphic, were not gory or violent, and were only very brief. They said the scenes from the film appeared so briefly that they would not have maintained a level of sustained tension for a prolonged period.
They said the only display of a weapon within the ad was extremely fleeting and the object was not being used by any of the characters, and that the ad did not show, let alone glorify or encourage, violence in any way. They believed the ad was edited so it did not contain content that would attract the attention and interest of children. For example, the images were dark rather than vibrant or colourful, and the doll featured was not a typical child’s doll and did not appear “toy-like”.
Warner Bros said the ad had an option to skip the remaining part of the ad after either five or seven and a half seconds. They said the scenes shown before the “skip” option became available were relatively mundane and generic in nature, and had been very carefully considered to ensure that they did not contain any content that could cause excessive fear or distress. They said the Planet of Cubes and Wordfeud versions would also have been scaled down to fit a mobile phone screen and therefore the ad would have had a more reduced visual impact than if it had, for example, been viewed in full size on a desktop screen.
They said the ad was targeted at those aged 16 to 34 years with an interest in the horror genre of films. The ad was served to users via a number of online advertising networks with instructions, therefore, to target those aged 16 to 34. Warner Bros said further “interest” or “behaviour” based targeting instructions were applied based on the particular user’s past behaviour online, such as “movie lovers”, “horror and thriller”, or those who had previously viewed the trailer for The Conjuring, a film closely associated with Annabelle,. The relevant website publishers and advertising networks used had a series of unique identifiers to ensure that those instructions were taken into account when the ad was served.
They said the version displayed on YouTube would only have been played to an individual who had previously viewed The Conjuring trailer or had demonstrated an interest in horror films. Additionally, in order to be served the ad by YouTube before the Pokémon video, an individual would have to have been logged in to YouTube via an adult’s account, because the ad was age and behaviour targeted.
They said that, while they understood that some of the complainants’ children had seen the ad, none of the sites that displayed the ad were targeted specifically at children. They said they had sought to ensure that certain sites made for or focused on providing content to children were specifically excluded, and that they provided their agencies with a black list of websites not to be included in the advertising campaign. Solverlabs (Planet of Cubes) acknowledged the complaint, but did not provide any further written comments.
Bertheussen IT (Wordfeud) said if the ad had been served in Wordfeud, then that was a mistake. They said the ad networks they cooperated with had a screening process, which must have failed. They said they could not find any complaints about the ad. They said they did occasionally receive complaints about ads, and in those cases they immediately followed up with the ad networks to resolve the issue.
YouTube could not locate the specific version of the ad.
The apps Planet of Cubes and Wordfeud were rated as suitable for those aged four and over on Apple devices, which meant that they should contain "no objectionable material", according to Apple's rating system. They were rated 'low maturity', on Google Play, which meant they might "contain instances of mild cartoon or fantasy violence".
The ad contained several scenes of characters in distress, and reflected the theme of the film from the outset, including through the use of eerie sound effects, and the whispered line, “I like your dolls”. The scenes including the man whose clothes were covered in blood, the woman who was holding the doll slumped against a wall covered in blood, the blood dripping into the doll’s eye, the woman being dragged across the floor screaming, and the child transforming into a woman in a blood-stained dress and attacking the other woman, were likely to be distressing to young and early teenage children.
Although the ASA acknowledged that the ad had the option to skip and that it would have been scaled down to fit a mobile phone screen, we considered that the ad was nevertheless likely to cause distress to young and early teenage children, and that care was therefore needed to ensure responsible targeting. We understood that Warner Bros had asked their media agency to target people aged 16 to 34 with an interest in the horror genre of films, in order to target the ad at an appropriate audience.
We considered, however, that some parents might allow a child to play with the app believing that the content, including all in-app advertising, would be suitable for that age range. In particular, we considered that a parent who might not usually allow a child to browse the internet independently on a device might be more inclined to allow them to play an age-appropriate app. Therefore, we were concerned that an adult and child could share a device within the same browsing session, and there was a risk that the child could have been served the ad while playing Planet of Cubes or Wordfeud.
In light of that risk, and because the way the ad was targeted, it could not take into account the possibility of a child sharing a device with an adult. We considered, therefore, that Warner Bros had not taken the necessary precautions to mitigate the risk of a child viewing the ad by, for example, ensuring that it was served in line with the profile of the apps, and concluded that it had been irresponsibly targeted.
On that point, ads (a) and (b) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Responsible advertising) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
As in point 1, we considered that the ad was likely to cause distress to young and early teenage children, and would therefore not be suitable for display before content that children were likely to be watching.
We noted that the ad had been age-restricted by being served only to those logged in to an adult's account, and that it was targeted toward users who had demonstrated an interest in horror films. However, we considered that the content of a Pokémon film was likely to appeal to children, and that it would not be unusual for a parent to be logged into their own account when accessing content for their children. In view of the content of the programme material being watched at the time, it was reasonable for consumers to expect that only advertising material that was suitable for a young audience would be shown.
Therefore, we concluded that the ad was inappropriately targeted and was irresponsible.
On that point, ad (c) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Responsible advertising) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence).
3. Not upheld
Whilst we acknowledged some people might find the poster mildly threatening and distasteful, we noted that it did not show any scenes of violence. We did not consider the ad likely to cause serious or widespread offence, or to cause undue fear, distress or harm to children. We therefore concluded that it was not irresponsible.
On that point, we investigated ad (d) under CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. (Responsible advertising) and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence), but did not find it in breach.
Ads (a), (b), and (c) must not appear again in their current form. We told Warner Bros Entertainment UK Ltd to target their ads more carefully in future to avoid the risk of causing undue fear and distress to children.