Why do mobile gaming companies use fake ads?

One odd development over the past few years within mobile games advertising has been the growth to prominence of “fake game ads,” or ads that promote gameplay footage totally unrelated to the games they are meant to depict. A YouTube user named i3Stars has chronicled the drastic contrast between some game ads and the actual in-app experiences of those games in a video series called Mobile Game Ads Vs. Reality. Below is one clip from the series:

Some of these ads are egregious misrepresentations of gameplay, such as when footage of a 3D, third-person adventure game is used to depict a 4X build-and-battle game, and some of these ads are simply bizarre, such as when torturous punishment scenarios are used to depict simulation home management games:

Whatever the case, the Facebook Ads Library has brought transparency to the diversity of ad creative being used by large advertisers and has helped to expose this strategy. To address the question asked in the title of the post: the assumption would be that companies run fake game ads because those ads work and deliver profit from ad spend. So two other questions surface: why do fake game ads work, and why do ad platforms allow them?

The first question is easier to answer: no advertiser really knows why an ad works or doesn’t work. The beauty of the modern, event-based algorithmic mobile advertising paradigm is that advertisers don’t even need to make assumptions about how audiences will react to various ad creatives: they can simply provide Facebook and Google with very many ad variants and let those platforms make the best possible pairings between ads and audience segments.

In my experience, the performance of the most effective ad creative is usually surprising. It’s futile to try to intuit what people will respond to in an ad: it’s much more efficient to simply experiment with different concepts and variants and vet them with real audiences, and this was true even before Facebook and Google rolled out algorithmic audience targeting. As it turns out, sometimes audiences respond to truly curious and outlandish concepts and imagery. So part of the reason these fake ads have become so commonplace is simply that Facebook and Google have made it easier to experiment and surface the concepts that teams likely wouldn’t otherwise have the audacity to test.

As to why ad platforms allow these fake ads to be run: if the ads are effective, it means the platforms are making money from serving them, and the FTC hasn’t quite caught up with this practice in a way that it can prove contravenes what is codified in existing Truth in Advertising laws. In 2012, the FTC fined Jesta Digital, an app developer and digital agency, with fraud over an advertising campaign that misled viewers into thinking their phones were infected with a virus. This fine, however, was mostly related to the fact that users that clicked on the ads were prompted to buy a subscription to one of Jesta’s services and not to the fact that the ads had nothing to do with the presence of a virus on the phones of the viewers.

The FTC also recently sued Match.com for misleading users into believing that their profiles had been viewed and thus prompting them to subscribe. But again, this suit was motivated more by subsequent purchases that were made as a direct result of the advertising campaign than the advertising campaign itself.

It’s unclear whether the FTC will set a precedent over misleading ads for free games: since gameplay becomes apparent before purchases are made available, it might be difficult to claim that any payments were directly the result of seeing an ad. It’s not uncommon to see a vast amount of vitriolic commentary on posts containing fake game ads, and whole Reddit and YouTube communities have emerged to denounce the practice, so users are becoming more aware of it, too.

In fairness, this creative strategy extends beyond gaming companies: many health and fitness app developers promote fanciful functionality in their products that simply doesn’t exist. But given the huge amount of money spent on mobile games advertising as well as the immediately obvious contrast between what is depicted in a game’s ad and its gameplay, it seems likely that ad platforms will have to address this tactic at some point.

Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash