ASA: Video Games Advertising Survey 2008

Ben Parfitt
ASA: Video Games Advertising Survey 2008

1. SUMMARY

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was subsequently launched to deliver the recommendations of Dr Byron’s report, ‘Safer Children in a Digital World’.  
 
One of the recommendations of the Byron Review was that the Government should commission an investigation into whether video games were being advertised in a responsible way and whether children were being encouraged to play games that were unsuitable for their age or experience.  
 
The ASA noted the concerns raised by Dr Byron and the UK Council for Child Internet Safety about the advertising of video games and has, in response, conducted a Compliance Survey of ads for these products.  
 
The Compliance team assessed broadcast and non-broadcast ads for video games that appeared in all media between April and June 2008. Of the 241 ads assessed, 178 appeared in non-broadcast media (newspapers, regional press, magazines, posters and the Internet) and 63 appeared in broadcast media (TV and radio). We have not included in the results, duplicates of ads that we found more than once in the survey.  In all, 130 separate games were advertised in the sample period in the 241 ads we considered.  
 
Of the 241 ads examined, we considered that only one was unacceptable. The ASA has investigated and upheld complaints about it.
 
Some of the other broadcast ads raised compliance questions because their content seemed to be more graphic than others. However, when considering the ads in the context of when they were broadcast, we concluded that they did not breach the CAP or BCAP Codes.
 
The overall compliance rate was over 99%.

2. INTRODUCTION
 
2.1 Background
 
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) maintains high standards in advertisements by enforcing the CAP and BCAP Codes, which apply to the content of non-broadcast and broadcast marketing communications. It is responsible for ensuring that the self-regulatory system works in the public interest and takes effective and consistent action to prevent ads from being misleading, harmful or offensive. The ASA achieves that by investigating complaints, monitoring advertisements through systematic research and giving marketers advice and training to help them avoid potential breaches of the Codes.
 
The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is the body that created and revises the CAP Code. It represents advertisers, promoters and direct marketers, their agencies, the media and trade and professional organisations in the advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing industries. CAP provides a pre-publication copy advice service and co-ordinates the activities of its members to achieve the highest degree of compliance with the CAP Code. CAP’s Broadcast Committee (BCAP) is contracted by the communications industry regulator, Ofcom, to write and enforce the Codes that govern TV and radio ads. BCAP comprises representatives of broadcasters licensed by Ofcom, advertisers, agencies, direct marketers and interactive marketers.
 
The Compliance team works to ensure that marketing communications comply with the CAP and BCAP Codes and with ASA adjudications. The team follows up ASA adjudications, monitors both broadcast and non-broadcast marketing communications and takes immediate action to ensure ads that breach the Codes are removed from the media. One of the team’s objectives is to create a level-playing field for marketers in each sector and it ensures that by communicating decisions that have sector-wide ramifications. The Compliance team conducts surveys (of which this is one) to assess compliance rates in particular industries, sectors or media. The surveys help to identify marketing trends and to anticipate subjects of concern that need to be addressed by the ASA and CAP.
 
In March 2008, Dr Tanya Byron published her report into child safety and digital media. The study looked at the risks to children from exposure to potentially harmful and unsuitable material on the internet and in video games.
 
The review considered the effect of violent video games and how they are rated and advertised. Dr Byron drew two key conclusions: (1) the playing of video games was correlated to violent behaviour but no causal link has been proven; (2) many children saw the violence in those games as the key to progress to the next level and did not relate it to their understanding of violence in real life.
 
When considering how and when children were exposed to violence in video games, Dr Byron suggested that advertising played a role. She concluded that although she had no evidence to demonstrate that video games were being advertised irresponsibly, research should be undertaken. Dr Byron stated:
 
“I recommend that the Government should commission and oversee research to examine (1) if video games are being advertised responsibly, in line with the age-ratings, and (2) the role of marketing in stimulating children and young peoples’ desires to play video games that are not appropriate for their age”.  
 
The review also recommended more wide-ranging action across the video games and advertising industries. The recommendations that were specific to the ASA were:  
 
• the advertising industry should take steps to future proof advertising regulation; tackle the regulatory challenges posed by emerging technologies, such as digital advertising, to ensure that the ASA’s remit was extended to cover them.
 
• ongoing training be provided for advertisers so that they were fully aware of the requirements laid down in the Advertising Codes.
 
• advertising guidance notes, or specific code clauses, should be produced for the advertising of video games.
 
The report recommended a dialogue between the gaming industry, advertisers and regulators to ensure that games could be produced, rated and advertised in such a way that children were not exposed to harmful video game content.

2.2 CAP and BCAP Codes
 
The purpose of the Codes is to maintain the integrity of marketing communications in the interests of both the consumer and the industry. All ads should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. They should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society and be in line with the accepted principles of fair competition.
 
The BCAP Television and Radio Codes set out the rules that govern ads on television and radio channels licensed by Ofcom. The CAP Code covers non-broadcast media, including internet advertising (pop-up and banner ads, virals, commercial e-mails, sponsored search).
 
A list of relevant CAP and BCAP Code clauses are in appendices one, two and three.
 
2.3 Survey Objectives

 
The purpose of the survey was to:
 
• Assess compliance rates for video game ads in the national press, consumer magazines, posters, online, on TV and on the radio;
 
• Address the specific concerns raised by Dr Byron about whether video games were being advertised responsibly and in line with their age restrictions;
 
• Identify and resolve potential breaches of the CAP Code or BCAP Codes;
 
• Act as a deterrent to bad practice and an encouragement to good practice.

3. METHODOLOGY
 
3.1 Sample Method

 
The Compliance team used Billets Media Monitoring, an online provider of ad monitoring in the UK, to identify the ads for assessment. The sampling period ran from 1 April 2008 to 30 June 2008 and the media included national newspapers, regional newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and internet banner advertisements.  
 
3.2 Media Examined in the Survey
 
We surveyed ads from 19 newspapers, 58 magazines, 76 websites, 79 TV channels, ten radio stations and four posters.  Please refer to appendix five (section seven).

4. FINDINGS
 
4.1 Compliance Rate

 
The survey sought to establish the proportion of ads for video games between 1 April 2008 and 30 June 2008 that complied with the CAP and BCAP Codes.
 
The Compliance team considered 241 ads, only one of which (0.4%) breached a Code; a compliance rate of more than 99%. The ad was age-rated 18 by the BBFC and was broadcast on television. The ASA had received complaints about the ad and subsequently upheld them.
 
The adjudication is attached in appendix four (section seven).
 
4.2 Rating Systems
 
Dr Byron recommended that the rating system for video games should be reformed, a recommendation that was reinforced by the games industry in July 2008 in a Westminster Forum, when it called upon the Government to introduce a single age-rating system for games in Europe.      
 
Three rating systems exist for video games sold in the UK.
 
British Board of Film Classification (BBFC):  The BBFC rates only video games that feature violence against realistic human figures. It is an offence to supply a game to anyone under the given age.
 
The games are rated in similar way to films, with these ratings: Universal (U), Parental Guidance (PG), 12, 15 and 18.  
 
Pan-European Game Information (PEGI): PEGI is a voluntary system that involves each games manufacturer completing a self-assessment form about the content of its games. PEGI allocates a rating based on that assessment.
 
If the assessment suggests the content will result in a 16-rated or 18-rated game, the content is always examined by PEGI before the rating is given. With the remaining ratings, some games are checked by PEGI at random to ensure the self-assessments are accurate and that the right ratings are being issued.

The PEGI ratings are: 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+. PEGI also uses content descriptors that indicate the type of content. Descriptors include violence, fear and bad language.
 
Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB): ESRB is a voluntary system with a slightly different age rating system. The system involves a wider age-rating on the front of the game and a specific content descriptor on the reverse. As with the PEGI system, each games manufacturer completes a questionnaire about the content of each game and the games are allocated ratings according to that information.
 
The age ratings are: Early Childhood (EC), Everyone (E), Everyone 10+ (E10+), Teen (T), Mature (M), Adults Only (AO) and Rating Pending (RP). Content Descriptors include fantasy violence, intense violence and blood and gore.  
 
Nearly all the games in the ads considered in the survey had been given an age-rating by all three systems. The ads used the age-ratings given either by the BBFC or by PEGI.  
 
Of the 130 separate games that were advertised during the sample period, 11 (8%) had been given a rating of 18 (BBFC) or 18+ (PEGI). 48 (37%) of the games considered had the lowest rating of 3+.
 
4.3 Context and Scheduling
 
The CAP and BCAP Codes define a child as anyone under 16 years of age. When considering whether the ads were targeted appropriately, we also considered the games rating and the context in which the ad appeared.  
 
4.3.1 TV

The BCAP Code has a section that provides guidance on scheduling of ads that could be considered to be potentially damaging to children if wrongly scheduled.  
 
The guidelines recommend the times an ad should be shown to avoid broadcasting to certain age groups. The guidelines suggest that any ad shown after 9.00 pm would be likely to avoid 5- to 8-year-olds and an ad shown after 11.00 pm would avoid children up to age 12. The ads viewed in the survey contained images from the games, often edited together into fast sequences. To a certain extent, the content of the ads mirrored the theme and content of the games and focused on the main character played by the gamer. Often, the gamer would play the protagonist and the ads demonstrated that by showing the images from the point of view of that character. In most instances, the depiction of fighting in the ads was stylised and fantasy-like, mirroring the images from game play. In all instances, the images in the ads were obviously computer-generated and were part of a game: fantasy as opposed to being a direct image from, or reproduction of, reality.
 
The audio in the ads included a mixture of music and voice-overs. The voice-overs mostly described the game, the characters and the features. None of them contained language we considered was unsuitable or irresponsibly encouraged under-age viewers to play or buy the game.  
 
Of the 55 TV ads that we considered, 52 featured a clear reference to the age-rating of the game. In most cases the rating appeared at the end of the ad and the ad featured a still image of the video game box cover. In other ads, the rating was superimposed throughout.
 
4.3.2 Radio
 
Of the games that were advertised on the radio, most had music or sports as their theme. The radio ads contained a brief description of the games and how they could be obtained. Most of the games were being advertised by music retailers to promote specific stores (on regional radio stations) or as offers in association with the radio station (give-aways and competitions).
 
None of the ads contained wording that we considered to be problematic or unacceptable.

We also noted that none of the ads featured a reference to the game’s age-rating.
 
4.3.3 Press
 
The content of all of the print ads for video games complied with the CAP Code.  
 
Although some of the ads included images of weapons, we considered that the characters were mostly fantasy-like and the images were not a depiction of reality and were therefore unlikely to be mistaken as such by readers. We noted that most of the ads did not feature characters involved in a violent act.
 
Information on the readership of publications is supplied by BRAD, a company that provides publishing data about all the magazines and newspapers published in the UK. For many, the BRAD data shows the percentage of reader age groups (15 to 24, 25 to 34, 35 to 44); for others the data is provided in the form of a simple sentence that describes the likely reader and, sometimes, the age of that reader.  BRAD does not provide data on the number (or percentage) of readers under 15 years of age.
 
The ASA considers a publication to be attractive to children if 25% or more of its readership are under 16 years of age. Because the BRAD data does not supply anything more than a summary of readers for that age group, the ASA has to consider the content of the ads and the context of the publications in which they appeared.  
 
We noted many of the ads for video games that were rated as 15 (BBFC) or higher were published in gaming magazines.  The data according to BRAD suggests that the readership for that type of magazine is very wide and all gamers (people who play video games regularly) were likely to be interested in reading them. Although that could include some readers who are under 16 years of age, the proportion is unlikely to be as high as 25%.
 
The gaming magazines that carried ads for video games featured reviews and articles on games with age-ratings from U to 18 (BBFC). The images used to illustrate the articles included stills from the game footage, such as characters fighting (when that was one of the main features of the game). The depiction of the fighting seemed to vary according to the rating of the game but when the game was rated above 15 (BBFC) the images of the fighting were more explicit.
 
When assessing the suitability of the ads, we considered the content of the publication in which they appeared. In all, we considered that the editorial content of the magazines contained images of violence more graphic than any of the images in the advertisements. Because of the content and context of the publications in which the ads appeared, we considered that they were unlikely to harm or offend and unlikely to be in breach of the CAP Code.
 
We noted that some ads placed by some supermarkets and music stores featured several games with a variety of age-ratings. We noted that 3+ (PEGI) games were advertised alongside 18 rated (BBFC) games (without displaying the ratings clearly).  
 
Of the 110 print ads that we examined, 94 featured a clear reference to the game’s rating.
 
4.3.4 Internet
 
Ads for video games appeared as banners and pop-ups on a variety of websites. Although a large number of websites were dedicated to video games and films, other sites on which the ads commonly appeared were dedicated to sport (mostly football) and ‘men’s interests’. Some games were being advertised on portals (such as yahoo!, hotmail and msn) and social networking sites such as myspace.
 
The content and appearance of the banner ads varied but they mostly consisted of text moving over still images of characters from the game.  
 
Unlike for magazines and newspapers, no generally available visitor statistics exist for websites therefore if the content was similar to that of magazines we assumed a similar readership. For example, gaming websites are likely to have a readership similar to that of gaming magazines and ‘lads mags’ websites are likely to attract the same age group as the ‘lads mags’ magazines.  
 
We considered that most of the websites examined in the survey were unlikely to be especially attractive to children and that the proportion of visitors under 16 years of age was unlikely to be above 25%. A few sites in the survey are known to attract children under 16 years of age, most noticeably myspace.com.  Only one ad for an 18-rated (BBFC) game appeared on that site and its content did not seem to be problematic.
 
The ASA is aware that the Byron Review considers the downloading of internet content, including games, to be potentially damaging.  During the sample period, none of the ads advertised games as being available for download but instead invited consumers to buy them from retailers (high street or online).  The ASA understands that for games available to be downloaded from the Internet, the invitations come directly from websites as opposed to paid-for advertising space (banners and pop-ups). The content of websites does not fall within the ASA’s remit and so we did not
consider invitations to download games as part of this survey.
 
It was noticeable that the banner ads did not display the game’s ratings as clearly as the ads in other media in the survey. Of the 64 ads examined, 33 carried no information about the age-rating.
 
e) Posters
 
The posters that were considered in the survey appeared on billboards, bus stops and buses. Many of the games advertised on posters had the higher 18-rating (BBFC) but the content of the ads was acceptable. As with the print ads, the posters tended to feature an image of a character from the game. Although the characters were sometimes holding a weapon, it was not pointed out towards the viewer and the characters were not involved in a violent act. Again, the images of the character in the posters reflected those in the game and were mostly fantasy-like.  
 
The locations of the posters are not known because Billets does not provide that information.
 
All four posters examined carried clear information about the age-rating.
 
4.4 Game Content
 
Most of the games being advertised during the sample period included fighting scenes or battle scenes as an integral part of game play. Other popular themes for games included racing (cars or motorbikes), sports or general gaming (arcade, puzzles or music games).

Of the 130 games that we examined in the survey, 78 (60%) contained an element of fighting or violence. Those games spanned the different age- ratings and the fighting scenes generally started in the 7+ rated (PEGI) games. The games with the lower-to-mid age-ratings contained more basic graphics and were noticeably fantasy-like in style. The higher age- rated games contained higher quality graphics and subsequently the images of violence seemed more realistic in the game than in the ad.
 
We noted that many of the games studied in the survey were set in a land of fantasy or in a future depiction of the world removed from our own reality.  
 
4.5 Factors examined by the Compliance Team
 
Most of the print ads examined in the survey featured images of the main character or characters from the game. The image in many of the ads was the same as that on the game box cover. Most of the text of the ads comprised the title of the game, a tag line and an extract from reviews about the games.
 
Similarly, the posters featured a strong central image of a character from the game.
 
Although some of the ads featured images of characters with weapons, those images were stylised and fantasy-like. Nearly all the characters with the weapons were not involved in violent acts and were not featured using those weapons against another individual (or character). We considered that the images neither condoned or encouraged nor glamorised violent behaviour.
 
The Radio ads did not refer to characters but provided a brief description of game play, its cost and where it could be bought.
 
If the game had a low age-rating or the content of the game did not involve fighting, we considered the images in the ads complied with the Codes because they contained nothing that would be considered unsuitable for any audience. The TV ads featured characters from the games, sometimes using footage from the game and sometimes using higher resolution images to illustrate the game.  

For most of the ads involving images of fighting or violence in which the rating was 15 (BBFC) or higher, Clearcast had given a “post 21:00” and an “ex-kids” restriction meaning that the ads must be shown only after 9.00 pm and not in or around programmes that might be of particular appeal to children. We examined those ads and found that the images were brief and stylised and unlikely to be interpreted as real by most viewers. The BCAP Code has a section that makes specific recommendations of when ads can be shown to avoid children seeing them. We noted most of the ads followed the BCAP recommendations.
 
The Compliance team identified two broadcast ads that caused initial concern because of the images of violence.  
 
One of the ads contained sustained images of shooting but the violence was depicted in a stylised war scene, no character was seen being harmed and the setting was considered unlikely to be perceived as real by the viewer.  
 
The other ad was set in more realistic situation (modern-day western society) and involved images of person-on-person fighting, but the images of violence were fleeting and were not especially graphic. We noted the game followed a popular and recent film franchise of the same name and we considered that it would be viewed as a continuation to those films.
 
Both ads were broadcast only after 9.00 pm and were not in or around programmes that would appeal especially to children. Taking all those factors into account, we considered that the ads were acceptable.  
 
4.6 ASA Investigations and Complaints
 
The ASA investigated complaints about three ads during the survey period.
 
4.6.1
The ASA upheld a complaint against two Sega Europe Ltd broadcast ads for the 18-rated (BBFC) game, Condemned 2.
 
The ASA received nine public complaints about the two ads, one of which was broadcast after 9.00 pm and the other after 11.00 pm. The latter ad was an expanded version of the earlier ad, but we considered that the content of the two ads were similar. Complainants objected that the ads condoned violence and were offensive and distressing.
 
The ASA considered that the ads contained brutal and graphic images of violence that were realistic in their appearance. The ASA noted in particular that both ads showed a man punching another on the floor and blood splattering on the screen as a man was beaten with a club. The ASA considered that viewers would find those scenes offensive and distressing and that the ads condoned violence and cruelty.
 
The ASA concluded that, despite the Clearcast timing restrictions (9.00 pm and 11.00 pm), the ads would be likely to offend and distress some viewers whenever they were shown.
 
The ASA upheld all four complaints.
 
4.6.2
The ASA published an adjudication against Take Two Interactive Europe Ltd t/a Rockstar Games in relation to a broadcast ad for Grand Theft Auto IV, an 18-rated (BBFC) game.  
 
The ASA received 17 complaints about the ad, which featured a man walking towards the camera in front of images of cars exploding and guns being fired in the background. Complainants challenged whether the ad condoned violence and criminal behaviour and questioned whether it had been scheduled properly because it had been shown during European football matches.  
 
The ASA considered that the character who was the focus of the ad did not engage in the background sequences and that, because they were relatively mild and fleeting, the dramatic sequences were unlikely to condone violent behaviour. The ASA accepted that although some people objected to the game, the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence by condoning violence and criminal behaviour.
 
The ASA also noted that most viewers for those football matches were adults and that the 7:30 pm scheduling restriction that Clearcast had given was sufficient

The ASA did not uphold the complaints.
 
4.6.3
The ASA published an adjudication against Electronic Arts Ltd t/a Digital Illusion Creative Entertainment.
 
The ASA received 12 complaints about a print ad that featured a still image from the computer game of three men in combat gear, one of whom was carrying a fictional beauty queen called Mercedes. A mock feature with Mercedes, in which she talked about her love of soldiers and explosions appeared alongside the image.
 
Complainants questioned whether the combination of images and words was offensive and constituted a degrading portrayal of women, whether it glamorised violence and whether it was likely to have been seen by children.
 
The ASA considered that the ad had depicted Mercedes is a satirical caricature of women who appear in ‘lads mags’ and that it was not offensive or degrading in its depiction of women. The ASA considered that the ad did not suggest that the woman had been taken by force and that the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or condone or glamorise violence or sexual violence.
 
The ASA did not uphold the complaints.

5. CONCLUSIONS
 
The compliance rate of over 99% suggests that video games are being advertised responsibly and in line with the CAP and BCAP Codes and that advertisers are targeting their ads at the appropriate audience age groups.
 
The high compliance rate suggests that, in most instances, advertisers are sensitive to which images from the games are suitable to be used in advertisements. The advertisers of many of the games that feature fighting or violence use fantastical scenes and characters that remove the gaming experience from reality.  
 
We concluded that the vast majority of video games seemed to be advertised responsibly and in line with the Codes.  
 
We acknowledged that children may be exposed to unsuitable video games through other channels, such as peer group discussions on social networking sites, internet forums, in the playground, sharing of the games among friends or downloading them from dedicated gaming websites.
 
The Compliance team will continue to monitor video game ads to ensure a continued high level of compliance with the Code.
 
6. PRE-PUBLICATION ADVICE
 
Seeking free and confidential advice from the CAP Copy Advice team is the best way to ensure that non-broadcast marketing communications do not break the CAP Code and advertisers are urged to use that service. The dedicated and experienced team can draw on ASA research and adjudications when advising on compliance and the likely reaction of both the public and competitors. Consult the Copy Advice team on 020 7492 2100 (telephone), 020 7242 3696 (fax) or e-mail copyadvice@cap.org.uk. The team responds to almost all written enquiries within 24 hours.
 
Advertisers, their agencies and the media can minimise the chances of their campaign breaching the Code by using AdviceOnline, an up-to-date database of advice that informs advertisers what they can and cannot do and links users to relevant Code clauses, Help Notes and past ASA decisions. CAP encourages users to subscribe to Update@CAP, its e- mail newsletter. Both services are free and available on www.cap.org.uk.
 
For TV or radio pre-clearance advice, advertisers are urged to consult Clearcast (www.clearcast.co.uk) for TV ads or the RACC (www.racc.co.uk) for radio ads. Pre-clearance is an explicit requirement of the BCAP Radio Code.

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