On 6th December 2023, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published an upheld ruling over an in-game ad which was found to be objectifying women. One of the concerns was the apparent lack of ownership/accountability among the parties involved in serving up the advert to users, and failure to pinpoint how this ad found its way to consumers' screens. 

The ad 

The ad in question promoted the AI photo editor app called “AI Mirror”. It was seen in September 2023 on the Pocket Champs mobile game and featured a woman who was bent forward, wearing tight shorts which were pulled up past her hips. It featured a “Try this AI effect” caption. 

The complainant challenged whether the ad was overly sexualised and therefore harmful, offensive and irresponsible. The same complainant also questioned whether the ad was irresponsibly targeted.  

Not my fault!

Polyverse, the company behind AI Mirror said the ad was uploaded independently by an agency. Polyverse did not explicitly state whether or not they had any input in creating or approving the ad. They said that the placement of the ad in Pocket Champs took place due to their ad network's algorithm but did not provide further details. 

Madbox, the publisher of Pocket Champs said that its ads were served via third party networks and therefore, they could only exercise control in a limited manner and once the ads were served. 

AppLovin, the ad network which served the ad, removed it after being made aware of the complaint. Whilst they reminded Polyverse about ad content policies and imposed upon them a pre-approval requirement, Applovin fell short of explaining how the ad saw the light of day in the first place. This is the second time in recent months where an AppLovin-served in-game ad struck a nerve with the ASA. You can read about the first instance here

ASA's decision

Both complaints were upheld and found to be in breach of CAP Code rules 1.3 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.9 (Harm and offence). The ASA considered the woman to be presented in a sexualised manner which was considered a harmful stereotype for the purpose of titillating viewers. Not only was it irresponsibly targeted, it was unsuitable for publishing in any game. 

Whose problem is it anyway? 

There's no debate about the harmfulness of the ad. However, this decision highlights the fact that playing the blame-game is a risky approach for advertisers. This deflection reminds me of my experiences calling a customer service helpline, being transferred across departments and eventually getting nowhere. However, advertisers should keep in mind that the responsibility ultimately rests with them, even if mistakes are made by third parties that serve the ad - so it's always important to work with companies that can be relied on to serve the ad appropriately… assuming the ad is one that should be served up to users in the first place, which this one was not!