Advergames – Play with caution (Part 2)

In my previous post on advergames I covered 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. In this post, I cover some of the issues that arise with advergames that appeal to children.

The reason for devoting a whole post to advergames that appeal to children is because most of the complaints to the ASA about advergames have generally been on this topic. There have also been various reports and campaigns in this area (e.g. the Family & Parenting Institute  and the Kaiser Family Foundation). In many cases it’s these types of campaign groups who are the ones complaining to the ASA about the advergames.

Keep it real

Section 5 of the CAP Code contains the general rules regarding advertising to children (note that for the purposes of the CAP Code children are under 16).

An important rule is rule 5.2 which requires that ads targeted at children mustn’t exploit their credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of experience. As part of this rule, children mustn’t be made to feel inferior, unpopular, or cowardly etc for not buying the product.

In the previous post, I referred to the recent adjudication 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). In that adjudication, the ASA looked at various rules under the CAP Code and held that, amongst other things, the rules regarding the exploitation of children’s vulnerabilities had been breached. This was due in particular to the fact that some of the games (on a smartphone app which had been created as part of the campaign) featured various on-screen prompts which encouraged the character (“Weetakid”) to eat. The prompts included the following:

“I really think you should eat something. How about it?”

“What?! No Weetabix?! Why make things harder for yourself?”

“Tired is not a good look for you. Why not eat something?”

Despite Weetabix’s argument that children who played computer games disassociated what happened in the game from the real world, the ASA thought that the prompts blurred the lines between the “fantastical WeetaKid world and the real world”. The issue was that it hadn’t been made clear enough to children that the prompts were directed at the WeetaKid character rather than at the child playing the game. The ASA was also concerned that the language and tone of many of the prompts was persuasive and negative and could lead children to understand that if they didn’t eat Weetabix they were failing in some way.

For grown-up eyes only

When it comes to alcohol, advertisers have to tread very carefully. Section 18 of the CAP Code contains the social responsibility rules (i.e. that ads shouldn’t imply, condone or encourage immoderate, irresponsible or anti-social drinking).

In particular, rule 18.15 contains a specific requirement that ads for alcohol mustn’t be directed at under 18’s through the selection of media or the context in which they appear. In determining whether any media are directed at children, the CAP Code contains the following specific test:

“No medium should be used to advertise alcoholic drinks if more than 25% of its audience is under 18 years of age.”

In the previous post, I referred to an adjudication from 2008 where the ASA held that Coors had not made an unbranded screenshot sufficiently identifiable as being an ad for its online Carling football game. In that adjudication the ASA also held that Coors had breached the CAP code by targeting an alcohol ad at under 18s through the selection of certain media.

The issue in the Carling adjudication was that Coors were unable to provide satisfactory evidence to the ASA that the Mousebreaker site (which hosted the screenshot) had an audience of fewer than 25% under 18s.

It’s interesting to note that Coors had inserted an age verification page which asked for the date of birth of the visitor before the game could actually be played on the Carling website. However, despite the age-gating mechanism, the ASA still thought there was a breach due to the appearance on the Mousebreaker site of the screenshot which advertised the game.

Keep the kids healthy

Aside from booze, by far the most common area of complaint about advergames has been in relation to food (sweets and breakfast cereals in particular).

Section 15 of the CAP Code contains the rules regarding food advertising and includes specific rules about food and soft drinks marketing to children. These rules sit in the broader context of public health policy which increasingly emphasises good dietary behaviour and an active lifestyle etc.

An important rule in section 15 regarding children is rule 15.11. This rule requires that ads mustn’t condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children.

In the Weetabix adjudication referred to above, the complainants (Professor Agnes Nairn and the Family and Parenting Institute) had argued that by featuring Weetos cereal and the Weetos logo, the advergames were generally advertising the Weetos brand and therefore, by association, were also advertising Weetos Bars, which are classified as a product high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS).

However, the ASA thought this was a tenuous argument and didn’t think this breached rule 15.11. This was because, firstly, Weetos Bars were not actually shown in any of the games themselves, and secondly, the rule in the CAP Code is that advergames must not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children, not that HFSS products cannot be advertised to children at all (note that the rules in broadcast, as opposed to non-broadcast media are more stringent). Provided advertising an HFSS product is done responsibly and makes it clear that the product is a treat, the ad can be compliant.

Almost exactly a year before the Weetabix adjudication, the ASA had come to a similar conclusion in an adjudication regarding an advergame for the Kellogs Krave cereal. In this adjudication a campaign group (Sustain: The Alliance For Better Food & Farming) complained that the advergame (which was hosted on Facebook) encouraged poor nutritional habits and an unhealthy lifestyle in children because it featured a Krave cereal piece dressed as a super hero chasing and jumping on pieces of chocolate. In this case, the ASA thought there was no breach because Kellog’s had taken sufficient steps to prevent children from accessing the game. Users were required to log-in to Facebook in order to play – at the point of log-in, the user’s profile was checked to ensure they were over 16 before they could click through to play the game.

A few months after the Kellogs adjudication in August last year, there were four further adjudications regarding advergames which all involved Rule 15.11 (amongst others). These adjudications were each initiated following one complaint to the ASA by Sustain as part of its Children’s Food Campaign.

The first of these adjudications was against Dunhills (the maker of Haribo sweets). The complaint related to a game on the Haribo site where a cartoon bear collected Super Mix sweets. In this case there was no breach of rule 15.11 because the consumption of the sweets was presented in a sufficiently abstract manner. The ASA therefore thought it unlikely that children playing the game would be encouraged to replicate the game character’s consumption.

The next adjudication related to a Sugar Puffs game on the Honey Monster website. Again, no breach of rule 15.11 was found. The game featured the Honey Monster trying to eat as many Sugar Puffs as possible. However, the ASA thought that, just as for the Haribo game, the consumption of Sugar Puffs had been represented in an abstract way (with the Honey Monster running through a maze, trying to avoid wasps) and that players were unlikely to associate the Honey Monster’s consumption of the product with their own.

Sustain were yet again unsuccessful in the next adjudication which related to an online Chewits game provided by Leaf Confectionery. The object of the game was to move “Chewie the dinosaur” around the landscape and to find and eat nine different flavoured Chewits. Sustain complained that the game actively encouraged and rewarded images of excessive consumption of the product. However, the ASA thought that the Chewits game didn’t encourage poor nutritional habits in children because it was set in a fictitious setting with a cartoon dinosaur chewing on British landmarks in order to release Chewits – therefore the consumption of Chewits was represented in an abstract way. The ASA also noted that only one sweet of each flavour was shown being consumed by the character in the game and that the total number of Chewits that could be collected in the game was less than the number of Chewits found in a standard pack.

It’s also worth noting that Leaf Confectionery had made available information on the website about how to enjoy Chewits responsibly along with a link to the “Be treatwise” website – the ASA took this into consideration when deciding that there was no breach.

Even though the ASA didn’t uphold Sustain’s complaints about the Krave, Haribo, Sugar Puffs or Chewitts advergames, Sustain did finally have some success in the last of its advergame complaints from August last year, this time against Swizzels Matlow (who make Refreshers and Love Hearts).

The Swizzels website featured an area called “Swizzels Town” containing games, photographs and videos. In particular, there were two games, the first of which involved catching falling sweets into a sweet bag, and the second which involved collecting cola bottles in a maze. Sustain complained the site would make the children interacting with it eat the promoted sweets more frequently.

Regarding the first game (which involved catching falling sweets into a sweet bag), the ASA considered that it wasn’t very long so the total number of sweets accumulated was not particularly high or likely to encourage poor nutritional habits in children.

However, a different conclusion was reached about the second game (which involved collecting cola bottles in a maze). The was some on-screen copy with the game which stated the following:

“Cheeky children visiting the factory have scattered Cola Bottles all around the corridors – you must rush round and collect them all while avoiding the angry parents… Good Luck!”

The game enabled the player to collect almost 100 cola bottles. If players were caught by the “angry parents” in the game, they would lose a life. The ASA thought that the game was quite long (it had three levels) and condoned eating a large number of sweets whilst hiding the fact from parents. All these factors taken together meant that the ASA concluded that the game did irresponsibly encourage poor nutritional habits and an unhealthy lifestyle in children, and was therefore in breach.

It takes one

All of these adjudications are a harsh reminder that it only takes one complaint to start an ASA investigation. Also, the fact that there may have been only one complaint is no guarantee that the ASA will look favourably on the ad. It’s worth noting that in the Weetabix adjudication, Weetabix argued that the game had been available since September 2011 (the adjudication was published in February 2013) and, other than the single complaint from Professor Agnes Nairn and the Family and Parenting Institute which prompted the investigation, there had been no complaints from parents that the games had caused children distress. However, this didn’t prevent the ASA from deciding that there was a breach.