Adverts for some of the world’s biggest gambling companies appeared in a mobile gaming app which appealed to children, the UK’s advertising watchdog has ruled.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that William Hill, Betfair, LottoGo and Dunder had failed to take appropriate measures to stop children from seeing their ads when they appeared in the Looney Tunes World of Mayhem app in February.
The game features cartoon characters from the world-famous franchise and has a PEGI rating of 7+ on the Google Play Store. The ASA said it would have appealed to “many under-18s”.
Players were able to earn in-game tokens through gambling adverts placed by an affiliate called Tapjoy – a mobile advertising firm headquartered in San Francisco – on behalf of the companies.
Tapjoy said it removed the adverts, which would only have been displayed to users who sought out the tokens, as soon as it realised the game had been incorrectly labelled, allegedly by its developer, as suitable for gambling adverts.
But the ASA ruled that the advertisers should also have used Tapjoy’s targeting tools as an added precaution to ensure that the adverts were not accessible to children who were playing the game.
“We understood users were required to self-declare that they were aged 16 or over in order to play the game,” the ASA noted. “However, the relevant age restriction was 18. Furthermore, ages could be misreported and devices were commonly shared between adults and younger users.”
The watchdog added: “We considered that although the content of the app also had broader appeal, it was likely to appeal to under-18s and its audience was likely to include under-18s.
“Therefore, even taking into account the option app publishers had to exclude ads labelled “mature-gambling” from their apps, which had not been used in this case due to error, we expected [the advertisers] to have used some additional interest based factors to reduce the likelihood of under-18s seeing the ad.”
The ASA upheld the complaints about the ads and say they must not be used again without “further, specific targeting to minimise the likelihood of under 18-s being exposed to [them]”. “We told both [the gambling companies] and Tapjoy, Inc. to ensure that ads were appropriately targeted in future”.
The app’s publisher, Scopely, told the ASA the ads breached its policies and the contract it had with its advertising partners. It added it had not targeted the game at children and it was not aware of any who had played it.
A spokesperson for William Hill told NS Tech: “On being made aware of this issue, we immediately ceased all activities with the affiliate. As a business, we take responsible marketing extremely seriously. We are currently conducting a full review of our ways of working with affiliates to ensure that such a situation is not repeated.”
Betfair’s spokesperson said the company “is mindful of its obligations to prevent those under the age of 18 from betting across all our channels, and recognises the importance of socially responsible advertising in helping to protect children and young people from exploitation and harm.
“This complaint relates to the actions of a third party publisher, which mistakenly opted-in to accept adult advertising content – including from Betfair – on its app. This should not have happened and we immediately stopped working with the publisher once the error was discovered.”
A spokesperson said Tapjoy “firmly supports the privacy and security of all app users — especially that of children — and we have a longstanding policy prohibiting the use of Tapjoy with child users or apps directed toward children”.
“When we first learned of the incidents being reported by the ASA, we took immediate action to remedy the situation and have since implemented procedural changes to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”
The companies behind LottoGo and Dunder told the ASA they had cut their ties to Tapjoy. Like Scopely, they did not immediately respond to a request for comment.