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Mobile Mavens: The industry wades in on sexist ads, aiming to “drive meaningful change”

Our industry experts discuss why sexist ads are being created and what we can collectively do to combat them
Mobile Mavens: The industry wades in on sexist ads, aiming to “drive meaningful change”
  • Some game makers are purposely creating shocking content that drives clicks and boost stats
  • We as an industry can combat this by not clicking on these ads and reporting them

In a recent feature, UA expert Matej Lančarič detailed the continued issue of sexist ads appearing in the mobile games market. These ads show sexist and often violent behaviour, which can spread harmful and dangerous messaging to players. 

With a clear call to action needed to push the message that advertisements like this need to stop, we reached out to our Mobile Mavens - our group of industry experts and opinion makers - to find out why they think ads like these persist and what we, as an industry, can do about them.

Here’s what they had to say.

Iryna Afanasyeva

Iryna Afanasyeva

Product Marketing Manager at Sandsoft

The gaming industry has a massive impact on people’s minds and lives, shaping perceptions and behaviours. Why not leverage this influence to positively impact through ads promoting humanity and a healthy mindset?

“As gamers and industry professionals, we can advocate for diverse hiring practices and provide training on gender sensitivity.”
Iyrna Afanasyeva

Encouraging studios to move away from sexist ads involves highlighting the long-term benefits of inclusive marketing, such as broader audience reach and enhanced brand reputation.

As gamers and industry professionals, we can advocate for diverse hiring practices and provide training on gender sensitivity. We can promote a healthier, more positive industry by calling out outdated tropes and offensive content on social media and supporting games and studios that prioritise respectful, inclusive advertising.

Together, we have the power to drive meaningful change and create a gaming world that uplifts and inspires all players.

John Wright

John Wright

Vice President, Mobile Publishing at Kwalee

So, lower CPIs are 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 near 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.

“The developers using these ads are doing so because they have been allowed to.”
John Wright

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. What I think we should do is educate the users that this is not ok and boycott clicking on them. Once users do that, the data will worsen, and the reason to use them will go away.

This is where 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.

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I think we need to collectively stand together and support women's rights and safety, and this includes protecting them from seeing these kinds 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 DSPs 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.

Again, I think these ads are purely going for shock factor, trying to cause outrage and then people sitting there saying "WTF" and clicking on them because they're so eye-catching. I think some people actually do it because they are appalled, but actually, they're just feeding the beast, so to speak.

Some of the weirdest ones I've seen are giant women birthing soldiers to be part of a tower defence or army battler game. They make zero 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.

Marca Wosboba

Marca Wosboba

COO at ZBD

Using sexist, degrading or in any way disrespectful messaging and imagery in ads doesn't drive better performance. It's an excuse for people to push their conscious and unconscious biases out into the online space without considering the impact.

“Talking about it consistently to achieve a higher level of discourse changes industry culture over time.”
Marca Wosoba

Did the creators of these ads test a message of positive reinforcement and diversity against the messages they ended up running and make an analytical decision? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

I also don't think they were being intentionally malicious, they just created something they thought was funny and would get noticed. Therein lies the problem and the reason for continuing to surface and discuss these issues.

Taking direct action, like reporting ads, makes an impact on that specific ad. Talking about it consistently to achieve a higher level of discourse changes industry culture over time, resulting in less harmful content being created in the first place.

Peter  Fodor

Peter Fodor

Founder at AppAgent

Sexist, misleading, and violent ads have one purpose: to trigger a reaction on social media, whether it’s an angry emoji or a comment from a disgusted viewer. This increases the ad’s reach and, in theory, drives installs. Unfortunately, these ads often target teenagers, making the negative impact even worse.

“Ad networks turn a blind eye because money talks.”
Peter Fodor

This strategy might work for smaller studios that don’t care about their reputation, employer brand, or the high churn in their creative teams. They exploit the engagement of angry viewers to gain an unfair advantage over bigger publishers who pay more for installs because they stick to moral principles.

Ad networks turn a blind eye because money talks - they get their advertising revenue, so it’s not in their interest to act against harmful content.

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Would regulation help? Regulation is like Pandora’s box; it can lead to many interventions in our industry beyond just curbing harmful ads. We might regret it, as the freedom of creativity and dynamics is what we love about the gaming space.

My suggestion is to form an alliance of responsible publishers, ideally the top 50 advertisers in the mobile gaming space. Such an alliance would have a strong mutual interest in stopping unethical acquisition strategies, as these directly impact their own marketing performance through losing in advertising auctions or paying more for winning bids.

If such an association appeals to Meta or Google, especially publicly, it would have much more power than individual efforts or those by small businesses.

I’m happy to be part of such an association and invite other user acquisition and creative agency owners to join us in shaping our industry for the better.

 Ivona Pinjak

Ivona Pinjak

Ad monetisation specialist at GameBiz Consulting

These types of creatives started a new horrible trend in the industry. No one should see this kind of content, but the younger public might think this behaviour is appropriate. Not to mention that some people could be severely hurt and triggered by it.

Unfortunately, it seems that we're failing as a society and that these creatives work. It became widespread once people saw high CPIs for these creatives.

“Even though we have some regulations in place, they seem to be not good enough or are not being enforced.”
Ivona Pinjak

I would definitely encourage studios to stop using these creatives for advertising their games. I'm sure that everyone can find a better way of acquiring users. Experiment with campaigns that would grab people's attention without using any unethical content.

Also, I'd strongly encourage everyone to block this kind of content and report all these ads if they see them in their apps. That way, they can maintain a better user experience.

Even though we have some regulations in place, they seem to be not good enough or are not being enforced. We are seeing this from another perspective since we're dealing with complaints from users of our client's apps.

For example, even though the categories "Mature ads" (everything rated as 17+), anything containing alcohol, violence, gambling, etc., are blocked, we can see highly NSFW, inappropriate creatives showing something previously mentioned being in their apps.

This usually happens if the app shown in the ad is not rated as 17+, not tagged with any of those blocked category tags, and they don't have any inappropriate content in the app itself, but they are just using this kind of creatives for advertising and somehow bypass all security checks.

We need to block and report every ad and advertiser showing these types of creatives. Listen to your users and act if they complain about ads they see in your app. Talk to ad networks; we need to push them as well to improve their reviewing process and algorithms. Report these to the studios that are using these creatives and call them out publicly.

If we all fight on all fronts, they will be outnumbered, and if their apps keep getting blocked on a higher amount of other apps, the performance of these creatives will keep getting worse until it stops having any value.

Nadir Garouche

Nadir Garouche

UA manager at Sandsoft

“It’s time for creative teams to embrace true innovation and steer clear of outdated, chauvinistic tactics.”
Nadir Garouche

It’s disheartening to see that some game publishers continue to use video ads that demean women, exploiting their effectiveness in capturing user attention to boost install rates and lower CPIs.

However, this approach not only lacks creativity but also integrity. Many developers have successfully reduced CPIs using ads that are engaging, inventive, and impactful, without resorting to exploiting stereotypes.

It’s time for creative teams to embrace true innovation and steer clear of outdated, chauvinistic tactics.