Who: Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)
Where: United Kingdom
When: 23 April 2014
Law stated as at: 13 May 2014
The ASA was recently asked to adjudicate on whether an online trailer for the film ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ had been responsibly targeted. The trailer in question played before games available via the website www.girlsgogames.com.
The trailer contained references to black magic and scenes which included a man pulling a long thread from his eye, objects flying around a living room as a woman screamed, arms breaking through a door, a girl looking through a trapdoor and being grabbed by the arm and young girls with a ghostly appearance and no eyes speaking in demonic voices. To further demonstrate the scary content of the film, the ad also featured night vision clips of cinema audience members screaming, shielding their eyes and looking frightened.
The ASA received a complainant which challenged whether the ad had been responsibly targeted because being placed on www.girlsgogames.com before games, it was likely to be seen by children and would cause them harm and distress.
Paramount Pictures’ response
Paramount Pictures UK said that, because the film had been given a 15-rating by the BBFC, they had instructed their media buying agency (MEC Global) to buy online advertising space aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds. The agency had purchased ad spots through the ad network Videology, and understood the ad would be served to a range of websites targeted at that age group. Paramount Pictures UK revealed that Videology was also asked to restrict the times at which the ad would be served to between 8pm and 6am only.
Paramount Pictures UK said the ad was served on the Girls Go Games website without their knowledge and, had they known, the ad would have been pulled immediately. Despite this, Videology had confirmed that all views of the ad served on that website during the period when the complainant saw the ad were served in accordance with the timing restriction requested by Paramount.
The operator of the Girls Go Games website also provided evidence that the ad was served to website users 7,233 times between 30 December 2013 and 2 January 2014 and that it had been served between 9pm and 4am on all occasions. In terms of the audience of the Girls Go Games website, the operator confirmed its audience was made up of 1% aged five to eight, 31% nine to 12 year olds and 61% 13 to 22 year olds. It informed the ASA that it regretted that the ad had appeared on its website and it had fallen through the content filters and ad restrictions processes it had in place to ensure it served only appropriate advertising to users of the site.
The ASA considered the overall tone and the content of the ad and held that it was indeed likely to cause harm and distress to children. While it was noted that Paramount Pictures UK had instructed its media buying agency to buy online advertising space aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds and to serve the ad only between 8pm and 6am, the ASA considered that the Girls Go Games website was likely to have strong appeal to children due to its overall design and the type of games it featured.
As 32% of users of the Girls Go Games website were 12 years of age and under and 61% of users were between 13 and 22 years of age, the ASA ruled that it was likely that a significant portion of websites users would be under the age of 15 especially given the design of the website and types of games featured. Because the ad had been targeted to a website which was used by a significant proportion of children, it had not been responsibly targeted due to the content of the ad in question. The ASA therefore ruled Paramount Pictures UK had reached the provisions of the CAP Code relating to responsible advertising and harm and offence.
Why this matters:
This adjudication is a good reminder for both advertisers and their agencies that careful scheduling and targeting is just as important online as it is for TV campaigns. Advertisers should ensure that when contracting with their agencies, agencies have appropriate obligations to ensure that when acquiring advertising space for ads, they carefully consider the types of websites an ad may be served to but also the general context in which an ad will appear and who the typical audience member may be to seek to avoid the risk of undue fear or distress being caused. This is all the more important where the product or service being advertised is for adults only or refers to adult themes for the purposes of its promotion.