Advertiser Square Enix was brought before the Advertising Standards Authority over allegedly offensive and distressing computer game ads on Facebook and Twitter. Did effectively placing the ads behind the social platforms’ age gates save Square Enix? Jas Purewal reports.
Topic: Betting and Gaming
Who: Square Enix and Advertising Standards Authority
When: 26 September 2012
Law stated as at: 1 November 2012
Square Enix released a trailer for its forthcoming game Hitman: Absolution, viewable on its YouTube channel and Facebook page, which received complaints over its content.
The trailer featured the protagonist, a male assassin, being attacked by a group of female assassins initially dressed as nuns but who then remove their robes and are revealed to be wearing "skin-tight PVC outfits". The trailer then showed the male assassin and female assassins inflicting graphic violence upon each other, leading to the deaths of the female assassins.
The ASA received two complaints that the ad was offensive and distressing because "the ads glamourised and condoned violence, particularly towards women, through the themes of graphic violence and the sexually provocative clothing worn by the female characters". There was also a complaint that the ad was "socially irresponsible, because it glamourised and condoned violence, particularly towards women, when it was for a product which would appeal to teenage boys".
The ASA therefore investigated the trailer under CAP Code Rules 1.3, 4.1, 4.2 and 4.4.
The ASA did not uphold any of the complaints for the following reasons:
(i) the trailer displayed a prominent 18 rating (by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board for the USA and by PEGI for Europe) and therefore "the 18 rating at the beginning of the ad clearly signposted to viewers that the content would be of a particular type";
(ii) the trailer was primarily viewable on YouTube and had been placed behind an age gate, therefore reinforcing the adult nature of the content to viewers;
(iii) Google had in effect agreed the content was appropriate for YouTube broadcast subject to a mandatory age gate;
(iv) Facebook agreed that the trailer complied with its Community Standards;
(v) originally the Square Enix Facebook page simply redirected users to the age-gated Youtube trailer, but a subsequent appearance of an un-age gated copy on the Facebook page itself was a technical error later rectified (the ASA expressed concern over the latter point but was reassured that "the advertiser had taken swift action to correct the error when they became aware of it and they had not targeted the ad at those under 18 at any time"); and
(vi) as to the trailer content itself, the ASA "acknowledged that some viewers might find the ad distressing and offensive [but] concluded that, because it was age-restricted and unlikely to be viewed by those unfamiliar with the game, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress to viewers of the Hitman Facebook page and YouTube channel. We also considered the ad did not glamorise violence generally, or violence towards women in particular, and we concluded it was not likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour."
Why this matters:
Generally speaking, there is no formal requirement to age gate or age rate online interactive entertainment content (whether that be actual games or just trailers or promotional adverts for them) in the UK or Europe. However, this case illustrates that in practice the risk of investigation by the ASA means that adult-type content is often worth age gating and/or rating, and further that the ASA considers this a good way to ensure compliance with the CAP Code (both as to the nature of the content itself as well as to demonstrate no explicit focusing on minors).
In light of this case, some suggestions for best practice are:
(i) use un-circumventable age gating software when displaying ads for adult-type entertainment content, in particular YouTube if possible since its approach was clearly supported by the ASA;
(ii) the advertiser should monitor its website and other 'official' sources (such as its Facebook page or Twitter account) to ensure that it does not inadvertently promote unrestricted copies of the trailer or ad and expeditiously takes down any such content if detected;
(iii) take care to ensure that the context of the content is clearly explained either in the trailer or ad itself, or in reasonable close proximity to it (a factor in Square Enix's success was being able to demonstrate how the trailer would actually have been perceived by people interested in the game); and
(iv) where possible, consider obtaining an age rating for the content (even if one is not necessarily legally required) or simply display a prominent notice to viewers, in order to help explain the nature of the content before it is viewed.