How to stop sexist creatives in User Acquisition

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Mobile game ads are notoriously bad. From fake ads to straight-up copyright infringements:

There’s plenty to choose from. But one particularly concerning trend is the rise of sexist ads.

Advertising that objectifies women is not only wrong but can hurt the player base, the gaming industry, and society as a whole. Today, there are 1.7 billion mobile gamers worldwide – ranging from adults to very impressionable kids. If these ads continue to go unchecked, we’re letting bad actors poison our wells.

[Trigger warning: graphic themes including assault, abuse, and violence that may be triggering to survivors]

What are these sexist ads anyway?

Advertising as a whole has progressed tremendously. Yes, there are biases or misrepresentations in traditional media, but mobile ads take it to a whole new level.

These creatives straight-up depict women as sexual objects or portray them in subservient roles. This perpetuates the idea that women are inferior to men and are only valuable for their appearance or sexual appeal. This can have a damaging effect on how both men and women view and treat each other, and can contribute to a culture of misogyny and gender inequality.

This is undoubtedly harmful to players. Seeing these creatives can lead to feelings of body shaming, self-esteem issues, and even depression. For younger players especially, these ads can have a damaging effect on their self-image and self-worth. A study by a Harvard instructor and researcher concluded that “the more teenage girls are on social media and exposed to image-based social media in particular, the more likely they are to have poor body image.”

These ads not only exist on social media platforms, but on popular websites, too. More broadly, sexist ads in mobile games contribute to a larger culture of objectification and sexualization of women. I’m not here to say sexist ads are the root cause of this, but it certainly plays a role.

Where & when did it start? Lily’s garden

Published by the Danish developer, Tactile Games, Lily’s Garden is a match-3 blast game. What seems like an innocent gardening puzzle game, a lot of the sexist ad trends can be traced back to it.

The goal of the game is to help Lily renovate her great-aunt’s garden. And along the way, Lily interacts with a cast of intriguing characters, which forms the game’s narrative meta layer. We all remember all those bizarre and shocking creatives about pregnancy, NSFW, penis-sizing innuendo, cheating, etc. The goal is to shock viewers, grab their attention with something unexpected, and make Lily’s universe much more exciting.

The most disturbing fact is that these are not designed for adults – and are so blatantly targeting children.

That’s not all. Some of the recent creatives IMHO crossed the line a bit.

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not just skimpy clothing for dress-up games. It’s much deeper and more real than that:

  • Men cheating on their partners
  • Glorifying rich men / bosses / CEOs
  • Women needing massive makeovers to keep their boyfriends and husbands happy
  • Men getting angry (and punching their pregnant wives?? I’m not going to bother linking to this one)
  • Abandoning children
  • Mobile games about running a harem…

The explosive growth of the game at the time

CPI’s are super high in the Match3 genre, you can’t really grow the LTV. The CPI vs LTV equation doesn’t work.

I talked about this in the Fake ads article. If you really think about it, it’s the same strategy all over again. When something is clearly working, others want to copy it. But in this case, instead of misleading creatives, you use narrative and story-driven creatives (isn’t it fake too?) to get the attention, create drama, plot twists, misogyny, and a bit of sexism here and there.

So far, we could see examples of smaller games trying to achieve growth at all costs. Big guys are also using the concept of picturing a homeless family “begging” for gold or a family trying not to freeze. WTF is wrong with you, people?

Unfortunately, the Match3 genre is not the only one where we see this type of creatives. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some examples:

Tile Family

Gossip Harbor

Garden Affairs

Seriously, this is even worse.

Don’t even know who is this, but seriously?

Developers are cashing in, too

If it works, it’ll continue to grow. I mention why fake ads are performing so well in another article. Essentially, huge game developers like Nexer’s Global, who were responsible for the infamous Hero Wars ads, were valued at $1.9 Billion  when they went public on Nasdaq after driving over 36 million downloads to that ONE game. 

What can we do about sexist ads?

Sexist ads are a pervasive problem that can be found in mobile games. It’s really hard to stop this behavior, but there are steps we can take together!

The first line of defense: report every ad you see

If you Google “how to report mobile game ads,” you’ll find a lot of frustrated users wondering why it’s so difficult. Hint: it’s by design. Reporting can be difficult, because advertising platforms want to pocket more cash!

If you come across a sexist ad in a mobile game or any other medium, report it to the game developer or advertiser. Here’s how:

  1. Some – not all – ads have a V, F, or I symbol at the corner of the screen to report the ad. This is reported directly to the ad network. Sometimes you’ll unfortunately have to watch the whole ad before this shows.
  2. You can also take a screenshot of the ad and email the developer. If they are responsible, they will crack down on bad advertising to not only save face, but help maintain a good user experience
  3. Leave a negative review on the game itself, mentioning its unethical ads

Here are some important links:

Put pressure on developers and ad networks

The second line of defense is making a ruckus. Write emails to developers and networks. Create new forum threads about reporting features. Write on social media and Reddit about how hard it is to report ads. More noise = more pressure.

Support mobile games that do not use sexist ads

In addition, supporting mobile games that do not use sexist advertising can help to encourage game developers and advertisers to avoid using these types of ads. Look for games that have a positive and inclusive approach to advertising and consider supporting them through downloads or in-app purchases. By supporting these games, you can send a message to the industry that there is a demand for more respectful and empowering advertising.

Support organizations that work to combat sexist ads

Another way to stop sexist ads is by supporting organizations that work to combat them. There are several organizations, such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US, that work to ensure that advertising is respectful and not harmful to society. Consider supporting these organizations through donations or by advocating for their work.

Here are a few organizations to consider:

Facebook guidelines

Advertisers are required to follow Advertising Standards, which are designed to help protect people from poor experiences and support meaningful connections between people and businesses across our technologies. For example, they don’t want ads that use profanity, show excessive nudity or include misinformation.

Policies apply to paid advertising through Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and the Meta Audience Network. For a full list of our advertising policies, you can visit our Advertising Standards.

In the Meta Business Help Center, they provide additional information on some of our advertising policies. See below for a list of articles:

  • Personal attributes: Meta’s advertising policy prohibiting ads that contain personal attributes, including information on avoiding assumptions about someone’s personal attributes in your ads.
  • Sensational content: our advertising policy prohibiting sensational content, including information on avoiding shocking, sensational, inflammatory or excessively violent content in your ads.
  • COVID-19: our advertising policies related to COVID-19, including what types of products and content are temporarily restricted or prohibited.
  • Cryptocurrency products and services: our advertising policy for cryptocurrency products and services, including information about eligibility to run ads about cryptocurrency.
  • Dating: our advertising policy for ads about dating services.
  • Drug and alcohol addiction treatment: our advertising policy for drug and alcohol addiction treatment, including information about how to apply to run these types of ads.
  • Online gaming and gambling: our advertising policy for online gambling and gaming, including information about how to apply to run these types of ads..
  • Personal health and appearance: our advertising policy prohibiting ads that generate a negative self perception or imply unrealistic or unexpected results.
  • Alcohol: our advertising policy on the promotion of alcohol.
  • Social issues, elections or politics: our advertising policy for ads about social issues, elections or politics.

Google Guidelines

Google is committed to delivering a safe and trustworthy ad experience for all users. That’s why they limit serving certain types of ad categories for users that aren’t signed in or users that our systems indicate are under 18.

Sexual content

Ads should respect user preferences and comply with legal regulations, so they don’t allow certain kinds of sexual content in ads and destinations.  Some kinds of sexual content in ads and destinations are allowed only if they comply with the policies below and don’t target minors, but they will only show in limited scenarios based on user search queries, user age, and local laws where the ad is being served.

Examples of restricted sexual content: Visible genitalia and female breasts, hook-up dating, sex toys, strip clubs, sexually suggestive live chat, and models in sexualized poses.

 

TikTok guidelines

Ad creatives & landing page must not display or promote the use of prohibited adult products or services.

Ad creatives & landing page must not display sexual activities or behaviors that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.

Ad creatives & landing page must not display nudity, make sexual references, or sexually portray a person.

Ad creatives & landing page must not display excessive visible skin.

Ad creatives & landing page must not focus on individual intimate body parts, such as a genitalia, buttocks, breasts.

Yet, still nobody cares on the platform side!

Create a more positive & inclusive environment.

It is important for mobile game developers and advertisers to be aware of the impact of their advertising and to refrain from using sexist or objectifying ads. Instead, they should strive to produce respectful and empowering creatives to all genders. By doing so, they can help create a more positive and inclusive environment for players and society as a whole.

It’s possible. Just look at the latest Match Factory or Match Masters creatives!

Talking about sexist ads on two & a half gamers

In conclusion, sexist ads in mobile games are wrong because they reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, can be harmful to players, and contribute to a larger culture of objectification and sexualization of women. It is important for mobile game developers and advertisers to be mindful of the impact of their advertising and to create ads that are respectful and empowering to all genders.

Educate others & speak up

Another way to stop sexist ads is by educating others about the impact of these ads. Share articles and resources about the negative impacts of sexist advertising with friends and family, and participate in campaigns to combat sexist advertising. By raising awareness about the issue, you can help to create a groundswell of support for more positive and inclusive advertising.

And if you’re reading this, you’re part of the industry. We must call out bad behavior, especially if we see it within our own organizations. We should speak up in the workplace, with our colleagues, and even with our clients. Share this article across the industry!

Let’s strive to produce respectful and empowering creatives for all genders.

Stop sexist ads now!

Oh wow! You made it until here! You must be very engaged. I like that type of players.. Ehm, people!

Please share this article with your industry friends. It would mean a world to me.

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