The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently upheld a complaint against Turkish games company Fugo Information Technology and Software LLC (Fugo Games). The ruling raises interesting issues around the creation and placement of in-app advertisements (ads), as well as third party obligations during ASA investigations.
The complaint relates to an in-app ad for Fugo Games' "Words of Wonders: Crossword" (WoW Ad), which was placed in a game called "Simon's Cat - Crunch Time" (the “Game”). The aim of the Words of Wonders game is to create as many different words from the available letters. The WoW Ad asked "Can you clear the board?" and consisted of twenty boxes all containing different letters. Two boxes featured letters "F" and "U", and the boxes to the right contained letters "C" and "K". The complaint submitted to the ASA claimed that the WoW Ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence and that it had been targeted irresponsibly.
No response from Fugo Games
Fugo Games did not respond to the ASA's communications.
The ASA invited Tactile Games Limited (Tactile) - the owners of the Game - to submit a response to the complaint. Tactile responded stating that the Game was not aimed at children and that the majority of players were aged between 25 to 54. Tactile stated that it only displayed ads that were suitable for a teen audience and blocked specific ad categories. Tactile also said that according to its YouTube viewer data, only 2% of its audience were registered as under 18s and as such, it was unlikely that many under 18s would see the ad. Tactile considered the ad to be suitable for the Game and its audience. Despite this, Tactile took the decision to blacklist Fugo Games so it was prevented from advertising across Tactile’s entire game portfolio.
It appears as though the WoW Ad was placed in the Game through a third party ad network called Applovin, also approached by the ASA. Applovin said that its terms and conditions included certain content restrictions. We do not have details of these restrictions however, after being contacted about the complaint, Applovin stopped showing the WoW Ad any more love and blocked its appearance on mobile apps served by the platform.
The ASA upheld the complaint considering the ad to be in breach of CAP Code Rules 1.3 (Responsible advertising) and 4.1 (Harm and offence). This is because the letters in the boxes spelled out a word which the ASA considers to be so likely to offend that "it should not generally be used or alluded to in advertising".
The ASA acknowledged that the majority of registered users of the Game were over 18. However, the regulator made its decision because the Game was rated as suitable for children. The ASA considered the game’s imagery of cartoon characters to have broader appeal to under 18s.
In short, the complaint against Fugo Games was upheld because the WoW Ad was likely to cause harm and offence, given that it contained offensive language. Furthermore, ASA considered the WoW Ad to have been made irresponsibly, as the in-app ad was provided through a medium which appealed to, and was capable of access by, children.
This decision demonstrates the ASA's willingness to engage with companies connected with an advertisement but not directly responsible for it. Despite neither Tactile Games, nor AppLovin being the official subject of ASA's investigation, their involvement acts as a reminder to advertisers of the powerful commercial sanctions which the ASA may invoke by engaging third parties.
This decision also highlights potentially different approaches to complaints against ads which contain expletives. Here, the the complaint was upheld as the ASA considered the F-word to be “so likely to offend” that it breached CAP Code rule 4.1. At the same time, the ASA suggests that there may be circumstances in which the offending word could be used, by stating that “it should not generally be used or alluded to in advertising”. The ASA’s recent guidance on the use of expletives in ads does not go so far as to prohibit their use but suggests that they should only be used in a very specific and targeted way. You can read more about this topic here.
Care should be taken by companies wishing to adopt the use of such language. If adopted in accordance with the regulations there may be instances where strong language can be alluded to or even used effectively. However, falling foul of the regulations can be costly. The most persistent offenders may find themselves following French Connection’s fate, whose famous FCUK campaigns resulted in the brand having all its future campaigns pre-vetted by the ASA.
Because the ad contained extremely offensive language in a medium that would have broad appeal, including to children, we considered the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence and had been inappropriately targeted.