“Advergames” a portmanteau of adverts and games, have been around for longer, and in more forms, than you might think, from Atari space-invader clones that promoted dental health, to first-person-shooters as a recruitment tool for the American military, advergames have a varied and long history. Despite being less mainstream than traditional advertising platforms, advergames are nonetheless subject to the same standards and codes as other advertisements, as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has made clear.
Displaying advertising content within games has its own risks, and developers must ensure that the advertised content is appropriate in the same way that a website host would seek to control what was displayed in their ad space. By contrast, in advergames the game itself promotes a single product or brand which will often sponsor the development of the game. With external funding comes external influence and the advertiser may be involved in the design of the game to ensure it effectively promotes their brand. This third party involvement in development necessitates a more careful and early consideration of key issues, including the ownership and exploitation of the intellectual property rights in the game, and how it is managed in the future.
Aside from the challenges of working with a brand manager to create a game which is both engaging and an effective promotional tool, certain industries have to be cautious about which audiences their games reach. A 2014 report from the University of Bath stated that children as old as 15 do not recognise advergames as adverts, and are unconsciously influenced by them. The market for advergames has grown alongside the explosion in availability of smartphones and tablets, as simple games (with a low development cost) have become increasingly popular. The bright and attractive design of advergames, coupled with children’s access to (and literacy in) technology mean that children are easily exposed to advertising content which they will not recognise as being promotional.
One key reason for all this concern is that advergames are widely used to promote high salt, sugar and fat (HSSF) food and drink products. The report mentioned above focused specifically on these products, and the most notable ASA decision regarding advergames also focused on the promotion of HSSF products. Swizzels Matlow, the confectionary manufacturer, featured a game on their website in which a character rushed around collecting sweets and avoiding angry parents. The ASA considered that this was aimed at children and encouraged eating an unhealthy number of sweets whilst hiding that fact from one’s parents. Another set of games which featured Scooby Doo breached an ASA rule that food advertisements targeted directly at pre-school or primary school children could not include licensed character or celebrities popular with children. Swizzels Matlow were told to remove the games, and may have been left cursing that they would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling ASA.
Advertisers then must be careful, as not only are advergames subject to the usual rules regarding adverts, but the mechanics of the game itself will be subject to scrutiny. Swizzels Matlow may not have intended to promote hiding sweet consumption from one’s parents, but the ASA ruled that this was the effect of their game. One solution for advertisers is to limit the scope of their game’s audience through age verification (as Krave cereal did by using a game to market towards Facebook users whose profile information indicated that they were 16 or over). The fundamental message, however, is that the same level of consideration must go into the production of advergames as any other media. While other brands may deliberately push the boundaries of the ASA, and appreciate the controversy, the same cannot be said for HSSF product manufacturers.