Who: Ladbrokes Betting and Gaming Ltd, Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)
When: 24 August 2016
Law stated as at: 19 September 2016
Betting titan Ladbrokes recently had an email marketing campaign featuring popular Marvel superhero Iron Man banned by the ASA. The ad was promoting a Ladbrokes’ online slot game featuring the same superhero, and included the text “IRON MAN 3 … Enjoy this exclusive Ladbrokes welcome offer with Iron Man 3″.
The regulator’s decision was to ban the ad on the grounds that it was likely to appeal to children, therefore putting it in breach of Rules 16.3 and 16.3.12 of the CAP code. These two Rules, when combined, state that:
“Marketing communications must not… be likely to be of particular appeal to children or young persons, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture”.
Targeting of the ad
In its response to the regulator when being investigated, Ladbrokes clarified that its email offers were only sent to its registered customer base (who would all need to be over 18 to have signed up) or to consumers who Ladbrokes knew were over 18.
Ladbrokes: most Iron Man fans over 18
Ladbrokes also argued that the image was “adult themed” and reflective of popular culture. It cited demographic data from the Marvel brand page on Facebook that illustrated that the largest proportion of fans were between 18 and 37, and only 6.39% of fans on the Facebook platform were under 18. It also made reference to the significant adult attendance at Comic-Con events (a popular annual convention for the comic book industry and fans).
In response to this, the ASA remarked in its response that Facebook’s terms and conditions required users to be over 13, so the evidence provided did not provide a complete picture. The ASA considered that younger children were likely to be the primary audience for Iron Man action figures and merchandise. Given the availability of related toys and the fact that the character was of a comic book nature, the ASA considered that the character was likely to have particular appeal to children and young people and therefore breached the CAP Code.
Targeting does not excuse content
One aspect worth noting in the ASA’s adjudication was that it considered that, even though the ad was targeted exclusively at over 18s, the fact that the character used in the ad could be of particular appeal to children was a more important factor. Advertisers should be aware that the regulator here has taken a strict interpretation of “likely to be of particular appeal” in the CAP Code, rather than a more purposive approach (as in purely practical terms, if the purpose of this part of the code is to prevent potential harm by leading children to associate youth culture with gambling activity, it is hard to see how this risk arises if children are not shown the ad). It therefore cannot be assumed – at least in a gambling ads context – that an ad that may appeal to children will be ok simply because it is targeted only at adults.
Is “Iron Man” really “youth culture”?
A key part of the ASA’s conclusion that the “Iron Man” character is part of “youth culture” appears to be based on the fact that significant merchandise aimed at children exists. This is also worth examining on two counts:
- Looking at the film in question, “Iron Man 3”, this has been age-rated 12 in the UK (in line with many recent superhero films which have been rated 12 or 15). The ASA appears to have concluded that the character of Iron Man is something that has a specific appeal for children. However if this is the case, this does appear to raise the question of why the film industry is not putting out U-rated or PG-rated superhero films.
- Iron Man’s roots are as a Cold War comic book character in the 1960s. Given that paper comics are now something of a vintage item, it seems plausible that the character may well appeal to a wide demographic of older comic fans. While the Iron Man character has undoubtedly also been used for toys aimed at a younger audience, the ASA does not appear to have considered in its written adjudication that there is also plenty of superhero merchandise in circulation aimed at adults.
Why this matters:
Online reports suggest that Ladbrokes is considering initiating the ASA’s independent review process to challenge this decision. If this is correct, it could be viewed as unsurprising that it has chosen to do so, as online slot games featuring superheroes have been part of the online gambling landscape for some time now.
The question of whether superheroes are “youth culture” seems something of a moot point. However, for the time being gambling advertisers should be aware that:
- targeting adverts at over 18s does not get around the prohibition on ad content which appeals to children; and
- where making references to a popular character from a film, the fact that merchandise exists that is aimed at children could be enough to create an adverse ASA ruling (even if the film in question is perhaps aimed at a mixed or older audience).