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Mobile Game Ads aren’t Just Weird, They’re Harmful: The Effects of Shockvertising and Why it Needs to Stop

False advertisements, or the act of using purposefully or unintentionally misleading advertisements to sell a product, are nothing new. They have been around since the invention of advertising itself and, thanks to new technology, have evolved to invade every part of the internet. Nowhere is this more apparent than mobile game ads.


     Mobile game advertisements are everywhere, from unskippable commercials on Youtube to seemingly unavoidable pop-up ads; they are seemingly inescapable. They even pop up inside other mobile games. Typically, the ads come in between levels–levels which strongly encourage players to manually view ads about other games to gain rewards that will help them make progress in other games. 


    I am by no means the first person to write an article about mobile game advertisements, but I have noticed a pattern of how mobile game ads are discussed. The conversation becomes more focused on how weird or wacky the ads are, and how that weird nature gets people to download the games they advertise. 


     While those are indeed elements worth discussing, I believe certain elements of these advertisements, such as the harmful messages they inadvertently send, are often overlooked. I want to discuss those messages in this article, as well as the harm they can cause. 


     Many mobile game ads are infamously known for their overtly violent and sexual content. This type of content is juxtaposed with the friendly-looking cartoon characters on screen, who often get hurt or presumably killed if the player fails to save them from some ludicrously over-the-top danger. 


     This juxtaposition of cute and melodramatic creates a shocking display of sensational images designed to get people to download the game, a practice known as “shockvertising.” 


     Shockvertising is when commercials purposefully use shocking, violent, disturbing, sometimes sexual, and provocative imagery to gain attention. This practice is not at all limited to mobile game advertisements, but it is prevalent in almost every single mobile game advertisement. 


     One harmful message mobile game ads perpetuate is the idea that a woman can’t be happy or desirable unless she looks like a beauty star or she makes enough money. What is this money used for? That depends on the gender of the character. 


     If the advertisement centers around a woman, such as many of 2017’s Homescapes advertisements, her money is spent on domestic appliances like stoves, kitchens, tables, etc. Occasionally the woman will be able to buy a house or a garden. Wow, such exciting variety! 


      If the advertisement centers around a man, such as 2017’s Mafia City, he will be able to spend it on stereotypical “manly” things like troops, guns, and so on.


     Another bad message mobile game ads send centers around beauty. In ads for 2007’s Project Makeover, an “ugly” woman is seen trying to become beautiful so her boyfriend, who previously left her because of her ugliness, will take her back. This is where the “shockvertising” comes in.


     One important thing to note is that these mobile game ads are sometimes interactive and, most of the time, designed to make the player fail. In Project Makeover, the player is given multiple options to help the “ugly” woman pick out an outfit, but none of the options are “right.”


      Any option picked in these ads makes the girl even more “ugly” than before and causes the player to fail. In these ads, the man doesn’t need to care about his appearance, the woman does. 


     With all this sensationalism surrounding mobile game ads, one would think that the games themselves are just as vapid and crude, right? Well, no. Not at all. 


       I have played Project Makeover and found out that the story has the exact opposite feel to it that the ads paint it as. I was surprised to discover how sincere the whole game was. There were unique and fun, if a bit stereotypical, characters and a story that was trying to be about the importance of taking care of oneself and how beauty is on the inside, not just the outside. 


    Why are these ads so different from the actual game? There are several reasons. A simple reason is it gets players interested. I think the companies behind fake mobile game ads want players to feel certain extremes: extremely angry, extremely shocked, and extremely curious.


    If players are shocked about the situations the characters are facing, they’ll more likely stop to see the ad; if players feel angry that the ad is playing the game wrong, they’ll want to download the game and “correctly” play it themselves. If they're curious, they'll download the game to see if it's like the ads.


     There is another, more technical answer to fake mobile game ads. In the case of Stella Stacco, the writer for the 2014 mobile game Lily’s Garden, her game and its ads were made by separate teams. The article, What Is the Story Behind the Lily’s Garden Ads quotes Stacco as saying, “All of those [ads] are [...] totally fabricated for, I guess, virality,”. 


     According to the article, the narrative team for Lily’s Garden focused on telling a grounded and mature story about family: “The story features a custody battle between Luke and his ex, and there’s a mystery as to why great-aunt Mary didn’t have kids of her own.”


     In contrast, the ad team for Lily’s Garden focused on making the game look as scandalous as possible. The article states that the ads feature pregnancy hoaxes, cheating partners, and other very inappropriate topics. 


     Ads like Homescapes often show a preference towards domestic life, which also shows they are after a specific demographic. Who is that demographic? According to Homescapes Analysis: Truth Behind Its Advertising, Homescape is targeted at casual gamers. 


     “Casual gamers” are people who occasionally pick up and put down a game without dedicating hours upon hours of their time to it. It is sometimes used in a derogatory way to refer to mobile game players who, stereotypically, are women. 


     Stacco has stated her game targets “Facebook Moms.” The aforementioned article states that Facebook Moms  are “[...] women over 30 who make up the largest audience for these types of mobile games [...] they are the largest demographic of people who play games on phones [...] And they’re also kind of unique in that, in general, the industry doesn’t really take them seriously [...] And so this story [of Lily’s Garden] was an effort to do that.”


     This next point may sound silly, but I think I found a very small tell of who these match-three games are targeting. Commercials for match-three games will show a finger swiping the screen, and that finger changes depending on the type of genre and audience. 


     If the ad is for a domestic match-three game, it will often show the finger as a long, thin, painted, and pointed fingernail. Stereotypically, painted fingernails are thought to predominantly be found on women.


     If the ad is for a more action-packed game with lots of violence, the finger will most likely be that of a normal-sized nail with no paint on it. These ads are cartoony, and cartoons often depict males with stereotypically rounder features than women.With this information in mind, one is probably supposed to assume the finger belongs to a guy, and that the game it’s featured in is for guys.   


     So far, a lot of these ads target women and place them in a box that says they need a man to be loved, and a makeover for a man to love them. 


     In conclusion, while mobile game ads are weird and wacky, they are also insidious. They are especially harmful toward women, telling them they can only be loved if they are beautiful and have money. They also limit women’s options to stereotypically domestic chores like cleaning a house or taking care of children. In short, these advertisements are gross and harmful, and I hope they change in the future. 


     Edited By: Mary May

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Tags: #mobilegames #mobilegameads


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