Metrics and Insights: Fail Ads in Mobile Games

 Metrics and Insights: Fail Ads in Mobile Games image
By Mariam Ahmad 28 June 2024

Bad players - every industry has them. For the finance industry its predatory practices, for the health industry it’s unethical drug companies, and for the mobile games industry, it’s bad ads.

What’s the purpose, and is there an end in sight for the bad marketing ploy that comes in the form of misleading, and, oftentimes, grossly sexist ads? We explore.

The failures of misleading mobile ads

"Fail ads" have become the unwelcome guests of mobile gaming – loud, obnoxious, and blatantly dishonest. These video ads lure players in with a bait-and-switch scheme, promising exciting challenges but delivering frustration and disappointment. Players are often left with a repetitive experience that lacks the advertised challenge or even the core mechanics shown in the ad - think Gardenscapes or Project Makeover.

This epidemic of misleading ads isn't exactly a secret. A whopping 56% of mobile gamers, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau have encountered ads that blatantly misrepresent the gameplay. This disconnect breeds distrust – players feel like they've been tricked, and the entire mobile gaming industry suffers. 

Here's the kicker: these deceptive tactics hurt everyone. According to industry data, more than half of all apps installed are uninstalled within 30 days, with deceptive ads being a major factor. Players feel cheated, developers lose users, and the cycle of frustration continues. But there is always that small percentage of users who continue to play, fueling the epidemic.

A closer look at the stats 

When it comes to mobile gaming, misleading ads, particularly those featuring the popular 'pull the pin' mechanic, are prevalent but controversial. These ads often entice users with engaging visuals and gameplay that doesn't reflect the actual content of the game. Let's delve into the statistics and effects of such practices on game ratings and user perceptions.

A case study examining over 50 games using 'pull the pin' style fake ads, one of the most common types of deceptive ads, revealed that criticism from gamers pushed the creators of these 'fake-vertised' games to partially integrate 'pull the pin' mechanics into their gameplay, often in the form of bonus levels or mini-games, particularly in games like 'how to loot.' Despite this integration, the overall impact of 'pull the pin' fake ads on game ratings was largely negative. However, a subset of gamers grew to enjoy these games after playing for several hours, despite initially discovering that the advertised gameplay was misleading.

A similar proportion of negative ratings associated with the keywords "advertisement" and "fake" suggests a strong connection between these terms and the game's reception, which developers should consider when evaluating the effectiveness of their promotional strategies. The study found that the average ratings for the investigated games were 3.80 both overall and in Q1 2020, but dropped significantly to 1.28 for "advertisement" and 1.18 for "fake" keywords in Q1 2020. Additionally, there was a high correlation between positive ratings (r(3)=0.9144, p<.05) and negative ratings (r(3)=0.9936, p<.001) for all-time and Q1 2020, indicating that games promoted with 'fake gameplay ads' throughout their existence likely received over a quarter of negative reviews due to their advertising, and almost one-fifth due to misleading content.

This data suggests that negative reviews could harm overall conversion rates over time, particularly as they accumulate, making this promotional strategy potentially risky in the long term. The 'pull the pin' mechanic has gained notable popularity among players, with many installing 'fake-vertised' games just to play these appealing puzzle mechanics. This created demand has significantly impacted the mobile gaming sector, highlighting the influence of these type of fake ads.

Why is this happening?

Competition within the mobile gaming industry is brutal, and user acquisition teams are trying everything to get users at lower costs. One of their tricks? Fake and deceptive ads. These ads pull in more clicks but have a downside - people often delete the game when it doesn’t live up to the hype. But if the game is genuinely good, with interesting graphics and fun gameplay, some players will stick around and enjoy it.

Banking on fake ads, however, is playing with fire. Bad reviews and complaints can get the app booted from Google Play or the App Store.

“Some of the weirdest ones I've seen are giant women birthing soldiers to be part of a tower defense, or a army battler game," said John Wright, Kwalee's VP of Mobile Publishing. "They make 0 sense overall but again the data tells us that they're successfully acquiring users, this has to be dealt with at the source and if studios don't understand what they're doing is morally incorrect then the bigger players need to step in and take action.”

Subsequently, as long as the CPI is low enough, and ARPU is high enough, the advertising strategy is sustainable for those pushing out bad ads. For this reason, the advertisers don’t pay much attention to the disappointed players and the game’s reputation. 

The more insidious side 

The prevalent trend within mobile game advertising often involves the use of blatantly sexist sexualized female characters or scenarios that have little or no connection to the actual gameplay. These portrayals typically feature women in minimal attire and provocative poses, designed to attract attention through shock value and sexual appeal. This tactic is based on outdated marketing strategies that assume the primary audience for video games is heterosexual males who will respond positively to such imagery. Yet, a recent study from Newzoo revealed that 46% of women gamers believe there is a lack of diversity in game advertising, indicating a significant gap between the content of these ads and the expectations of the female gaming community. This is a real issue, especially considering 48% of mobile gamers are women.

“So, lower CPI's is the mission here, these ads are outrageous and for that reason people click on them. It's a pretty underhand and dirty tactic but many companies have been deploying a similar tactic in traditional media for years. I would not say anywhere nearly as bad and as disgusting as some of the sexist ads I've seen but we've all heard the saying "sex sells" well in gaming, for particular studios, in particular genres of games these ads bring in millions of users. There is an element of moral bankruptcy here but equally for a UA team especially it's all about the data and if these are driving results then they will continue to use them,” continues John.

What is the solution?

It's important to remember that this is still a relatively small fraction of mobile games and advertisements. There are numerous examples of mobile games that have successfully attracted and maintained large player bases without resorting to sexist tropes in their advertising. Games like "Monument Valley," "Alto’s Adventure," and "Stardew Valley" focus on the strength of their gameplay, innovative mechanics, and compelling storytelling in their marketing efforts. These games demonstrate that ads highlighting actual game features, such as strategic gameplay, immersive worlds, or unique artistic styles, can engage a broad audience effectively. This not only ensures a more inclusive gaming environment but also promotes long-term engagement with the product, as players are drawn in by genuine features rather than misleading, sensationalist content.

It’s also up to the regulators, as well as Apple and Google, who are taking action. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) actively targets offensive and misogynistic ads, particularly in the mobile gaming industry, to ensure compliance with advertising standards. When ads are found to objectify or sexualize individuals, the ASA steps in to uphold complaints and mandate the removal or modification of such ads.


I think we should start to band together across the industry, the developers using these ads are doing so because they have been allowed to. I believe we need to collectively stand together and support women's rights and safety, and this includes protecting them from seeing these kind of ads online.

I think Apple and Google in particular should prevent developers from doing this, after that it comes down to the SDK networks and DSP's and then finally the ad providers and agencies that also might be making these ads for people. Cut it off from the root, the abuse of women is not acceptable in any medium or format. - John Wright, Kwalee

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Recent rulings involved ads for games like "Refantasia: Charm and Conquer," "Legend City," and "King's Throne: Game of Conquest," all of which were flagged for sexist content. The ASA required these ads to be pulled and prohibited similar future content, emphasizing the need for responsible and respectful advertising​.

In addition to reacting to complaints, the ASA provides guidance to advertisers to prevent issues from arising. This includes advice on avoiding the use of harmful gender stereotypes and ensuring that ads do not glamorize or condone violence or objectification​.

By rejecting sexist marketing and highlighting the true strengths of their games, developers and advertisers can not only create a more inclusive and respectful gaming culture but also pave the way for a sustainable and ethical industry that truly values its diverse community.


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