Advergames – Play with caution (Part 1)

ad•ver•game (noun): an electronic game that promotes a particular brand, product, or marketing message by integrating it into the game.

The digital world has enabled innovative ad formats to flourish. One such format is the advergame (be it on a social media site, an advertiser’s own website or a mobile app).

The CAP Code specifically states that advergames are within its scope. It’s also important to be aware that, as part of the ASA’s “digital remit”, the CAP Code will not only cover advergames in online paid-for space, but also in non-paid-for space (e.g. on the advertiser’s own website, or as an app or on a social media site under the advertiser’s control).

Complaints regarding advergames have generally related to concerns regarding the appeal of the advergame to children and whether it’s sufficiently clear that the game is an ad. There have also been a few adjudications relating to the use of an advergame as part of a mechanic for a prize promotion (note that this may create additional issues under the Gambling Act 2005 which I don’t go into in this blog post).

Last year CAP decided to publish an advice note about advergames. In the advice note, CAP says that advergames offer businesses innovative and potentially exciting means to market their brands, products or services but they should be provided responsibly, particularly with regard to their target audience.

This blog post was getting quite long so I’ve split it into two parts. Part 1 covers some issues that arise when using advergames as the mechanic for a prize promotion, as well as the importance of making sure the advergame is obviously identifiable as an ad. Part 2 covers some of the issues that arise with advergames that appeal to children.

Check your T&Cs!

The rules regarding prize promotions such as competitions and random draws are contained in section 8 of the CAP Code. There are various requirements regarding both the administration and the publicity given to promotions (see my other blog post about online prize promotions). For example, rule 8.2 contains a general requirement that promotions must be conducted fairly and avoid any unnecessary disappointment; rule 8.14 requires that adequate resources are made available to administer the promotion, rule 8.15.1 requires prizes to be awarded as described in the marketing communication, and rule 8.17 requires that all applicable significant conditions for the prize promotion are made available to entrants.

It’s important that, where an advergame is used as the mechanic for a competition, there is no disconnect between the T&Cs for the promotion and how the game actually works. This kind of disconnect was revealed in an adjudication from 2009 where the ASA held that Kimberly-Clark had breached the rules in relation to a competition it ran on the Andrex website.

The competition involved a game where players had to click on 3 question marks in an online gamecard displaying a grid of nine question marks. Text underneath stated:

“Click on 3 question marks in the grid – if you reveal 3 images that match, you win that prize!…”

Someone complained that the game was unfair because it transpired that some of the online gamecards had no matching images at all. Kimberly-Clark told the ASA that the insertion of winning gamecards was subject to an automated random process during the campaign, and that it is was essential to have certain gamecards with no winning combinations to ensure that prize winning combinations would be available to players throughout the entire promotion.

However, somewhat harshly (I think) the ASA thought that the on-screen instructions as well as the T&Cs provided insufficient information to users. It should have been explained to users very clearly that not every gamecard would contain three matching images.

Beware the hackers!

Never underestimate the willingness for people to cheat. Two months after the Andrex adjudication referred to above, there was another adjudication regarding an advergame used as the mechanic for a competition on a website called “Shinyshack”. The competition involved a game called “Shinyballs” where the player with the highest score would win a £500 voucher.

During the course of the competition, Shinyshack had started to notice some very high scores which looked suspicious to them. On the day before the closing date they discovered (based on their server data) that the top ten scores were in fact all fraudulent.

It transpired that by decompiling the flash file that the game was presented as, it was possible to submit fake scores. It was therefore impossible for Shinyshack to say with any confidence that any of the high scores were genuine. Therefore they decided to give the prize money to charity. They posted a message on the site on the day the winner should have been announced, telling users that some people had been manipulating their scores and therefore no one would win the competition and the money would be donated to charity.

Someone complained that the competition had been administered unfairly because the competition either should have been withdrawn sooner or the prize money should have been given to the person with the highest genuine score.

The ASA didn’t agree and thought that Shinyshack had in fact done the right thing. The ASA’s reasoning was based on the fact that (amongst other things) (a) Shinyshack had not anticipated that players would go to the lengths of decompiling the file, (b) it was very difficult for Shinyshack to determine which of the high scores was genuine, and (c) Shinyshack had explained the reasoning behind their decision on the website on the day the competition closed.

In reality, Shinyshack had actually received positive feedback from participants regarding the decision to give the money to charity and it is difficult to see how the donation to charity could be seen as anything other than the most reasonable use of the money in the circumstances. I wonder whether the person who complained was one of the hackers…

Be clear it’s an advergame

Section 2 of the CAP Code contains the general rules about making sure advertising material is clearly identifiable as advertising. In particular, under rule 2.1 marketing communications must be “obviously identifiable as such”.

In an adjudication from 2008, the ASA held that Coors had breached this requirement because a screenshot used as an ad for an online Carling football game was not obviously identifiable as an ad.

The screenshot was hosted on the Mousebreaker free games website controlled by IPC Media. When users clicked on the screenshot they were redirected to the Carling website where the game was hosted.

The screenshot itself didn’t contain any Carling branding. However, based on the fact that (a) there was a commercial agreement in place between Coors and IPC Media (under which Coors paid IPC Media to host the screenshot and promote the game) and (b) the screenshot directed people to the game which did contain Carling branding, the ASA thought that the screenshot was advertising – it was analogous to a sponsored link.

As a result, both the screenshot and link had to be taken down from the site. Whether the risk of this happening had been covered off in the agreement between Coors and IPC Media is another story…

The Coors adjudication above can be contrasted with a very recent adjudication published only last week regarding a series of online Weetabix advergames. The games included “Weetos Leap of Faith” (in which players tried to make a Weeto leap into a bowl of milk) and “WeetaKid” (in which the aim was to control a character in collecting as many Weetabix as possible against the clock).

Professor Agnes Nairn and the Family and Parenting Institute complained (amongst other things) that the advergames were not obviously identifiable as marketing communications.

It’s worth noting that the CAP guidance regarding advergames (referred to at the top of this post) states that when considering whether advergames conform to rule 2.1, the ASA will consider the context in which the advergame is made available, and any references to the product, brand or organisation in or around the game.

In this case, the logos of the relevant Weetabix brands were prominently displayed on the websites, the games actually featured Weetabix products, and there were also prominent links to TV ads for the products. On this basis the ASA thought the advergames were obviously identifiable as marketing.

However, even though the Weetabix advergames didn’t breach rule 2.1, they were held to breach other rules in the CAP Code which I cover in Part 2 of this post…