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ASA rules on inappropriate targeting of gambling ads

Published on 07 November 2019

Are ads for age restricted promotions appropriate in a free to play app? If not, who is responsible for ensuring that under-18s are not exposed to inappropriate ads for their age?

The key takeaway

Adopting a strategy of not targeting under-18s with gambling ads is not enough on its own. If other tools are available to specifically target over-18s, these should be used as they necessarily make it less likely that under-18s are exposed to such ads. 

The background

Four gambling operators have been censured by the ASA for breaches of the CAP Code’s Rules on social responsibility and targeting. Ads from William Hill, Dunder, LottoGo Euromillions and Betfair were seen in a PEGI 7 app, where in-game currency could be earned by completing tasks or watching ads. The app was “Looney Tunes World of Mayhem” where players build a town and battle with well-known Looney Tunes characters. 

All ads were placed by Tapjoy Inc and followed a similar format. They invited players to register with the gambling operator and deposit a certain amount of money in order to play arcade games. If these steps were completed, the player would earn a significant amount of gems as in-game currency. 

The outcome

Betfair’s response was that their site has appropriate safeguards including a verification process to prevent people under the age of 18 from being able to sign up for an account, in accordance with their obligations. Additionally, the ads were not pop-up ads, but were found in the Tapjoy store. Users would have to specifically go to this tab, which took you away from the main gameplay. This is essentially an “offerwall”, from which users can select from rows of ads, which provide different levels of awards of in-game currency. Tapjoy classifies ads which are only suitable for people over the age of 18 with a mature or mature plus rating. It also works with the developers and publishers of free to play games to provide in-app currency rewards for interacting with ads and engaging with offers within the app. Publishers have the option to choose which ratings of ads can be offered in the game. Here, the game had been marked to allow mature gambling in error. As soon as Tapjoy was made aware of this, it was corrected. Tapjoy also offers the option for advertisers to further target their advertising to a defined set of users, but Betfair had not taken advantage of this. Given the test in the CAP Code relates to whether the advert had been directed at people under the age of 18, rather than whether people under 18 were exposed to it, they argued that they had not targeted under-18s.

The ASA held that although the app did have broader appeal it was also likely to appeal to under-18s. While users of the app were required to self-certify that they were over 16, this would not prevent under 18s getting access to the app and therefore being presented with the ads. It was not appropriate to solely rely on self-reported age data, as users could misreport their ages, or play on a relative’s account. Given that Tapjoy did have options for age targeting, based on interest-based data, and the advertisers had chosen not to do this, the ads had been inappropriately targeted in breach of the CAP Code. 

Why is this important?

Concerns about young people being targeted by “pay to play” mechanics in free to play games have received significant media attention of late, after reports of young people spending significant sums without their parent’s consent or knowledge. A complicating factor is a diffusion of responsibility between advertisers, developers of ad-placing software and the developers and publishers of the apps themselves. This can make it difficult to pin down who is ultimately responsible for ensuring, as far as possible, that under-18s are not exposed to inappropriate advertising. The recent decisions of the ASA in relation to this stress that in order to comply with the requirements that ads about gambling are not targeted to under-18s, it is insufficient just not to target them. Rather, it is important that, if available, additional steps are taken to actively target the ads towards over-18’s in order that under-18s are less likely to be exposed to them.

Practical tips?

It is important to make sure that ad restrictions are in line with the restrictions on who can access a particular app. Additional safeguards are also required. Age-tracking via self-reporting is not enough, as users can misreport or use the account of a relative or friend who has accurately reported their age. The content of an app is also relevant. Here the app contained well-known cartoon characters, which had originally been aimed at children, much as the app itself had a wider audience. Eventual responsibility lands on gambling advertisers to take all reasonable steps available to them to ensure that they are actively limiting exposure to under-18s as much as possible. Interest-based data, if available, should be used in conjunction with self-reported age data to minimise exposure of under-18s to gambling advertising.