Mobile gaming has an advertising problem that needs to be addressed

It's safe to say that aside from the Super Bowl, people generally go out of their way to avoid watching ads. We use ad blockers wherever possible and smash that "Skip Ad" button on YouTube pre-roll ads as soon as humanly possible.

Needless to say, I am also aware that ads are still a necessary evil in the world of smartphone apps — users typically don't like to pay for apps if there's a free alternative, but developers still need reliable avenues for generating revenue. Including ads in your game or app offer a workable compromise wherein users are conditioned to expect the occasional ad interruptions in exchange for not having to deal with upfront costs.

If you're playing a free game downloaded from the Google Play Store, you'll be forced to sit through ads for other games eager to steal a share of your screen time.

This means if you're playing a free game downloaded from the Google Play Store, you'll be forced to sit through the occasional ad for a different game eager to steal a share of your screen time. Services like AdMob by Google have helped generate over $3 billion according to its own figures, and I'm all for app developers getting paid for their work, even if they ultimately decide to release their app for free.

But over the past couple years, it's become abundantly clear to me that there are little to no standards or guidelines for acceptable content or honesty in mobile gaming ads. There are many examples I could point to, but I'll focus my arguments on three particular ad types that are gratuitous, misleading, or just plain gross.

Sex sells

First up, consider this CG trailer for Sword of Chaos. Between the excessive boob jiggling and gratuitous low-angle shots of the all-female cast fighting, you're left with no clue who the characters are, what they're fighting for, but most importantly what type of game is being advertised.

It's an MMORPG, by the way, and it looks and plays nothing like this ad would have you believe. The actual game features a fixed, high-angle camera that keeps your character in the center of the frame, so I guarantee more than a few teenaged users were left feeling deflated if they downloaded this game immediately after seeing this ad pop up on their screen. The developers say it's "one of the most cutting-edge mobile action MMORPG ever produced", but if that's true, you're left to question why they chose to focus on the overt sexual objectification of women (sex sells) instead of simply showcasing the game itself.

You know, just like Lords Mobile does in its ads.

So much cringe

If you search "Lords Mobile ads" on YouTube, you'll get results for videos titled "Terrible Lords Mobile Advertisements are TERRIBLE", "Lords Mobile Ad Cringe", and "Lords Mobile ads are cancer". On one hand, these ads do attempt to show actual gameplay, but they do so by overlaying a cheesy scripted video of a "streamer" "playing" the game. Almost every ad uses the same in-game footage with a different actor reacting incredulously about how fun this game is to play.

It would be easy to brush off these laughable Lords Mobile ads as just lazy, but when they continue to pop up over and over again on your screen it really makes you think — oh, never about downloading the game, but instead how bad the game must be if it wasn't possible to reach out to the community and get a real player to record genuine reactions to them playing one of their favorite game.

Beyond the pale

But the worst of the bunch that ultimately led me to write this article was a series of ads that bombarded my phone last week for a game called Mafia City. Each ad was slightly different, but they all shared a similar tone and shocking imagery: a whimpering person gagged and bound to a chair while a cool-looking mafia dude stood nearby with a big gun. It was a video ad with accompanying audio of a man pathetically sobbing.

They were all pretty dumb ads to be sure, but nothing worth writing about until one popped up with options to either "Kill" or "Seduce" the bound man. What.

Why does Google allows so many dishonest or disrespectful ads to propagate across its network of services?

I'm not sensitive to video game violence. I played through GTA 5 and had no issues with the controversial torture scene in that game. But that scene is designed to be a tough moral choice for the player to make, and GTA 5 was also never marketed solely based on that single game mechanic. It's one thing for video games to glorify violence, but Mafia City to me crossed boundaries of decency and good taste simply for the shock value. I tried to imagine what sort of personality you'd have to have to see that ad and think "Heck yea, this is the game for me!"

I question why Google allows ads of this ilk to propagate across its network of services. They pop up within other games and apps downloaded from the Google Play Store and also as pre-roll ads on YouTube. Are there no guidelines for what is considered acceptable for advertising mobile games? Should we not expect honesty in advertisements from mobile game developers?

I'm aware that by spending so much time talking about these bad ads, I'm probably proving some marketing expert's point about how effective these ads are at making impressions and generating discussion. If I could write about this topic without buzz marketing any of the associated games I would. Just know if you're an app developer or advertiser using these sleazy tricks I will never download your app, and I hope anyone reading this avoids them, too.

Marc Lagace

Marc Lagace was an Apps and Games Editor at Android Central between 2016 and 2020. You can reach out to him on Twitter [@spacelagace.