Computer game ads could bypass regulators

Computer game adverts could be completely unregulated in the UK. A new class of ads proposed by games giant Electronic Arts may evade regulation under current rules if they are deemed to be 'product placement' by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ASA told OUT-LAW that the adverts are likely to be considered product placement and not adverts, and therefore not subject to ASA rules.

Ofcom, which governs product placement on television, told OUT-LAW that it does not regulate product placement in computer games.

Electronic Arts has announced that it will increase the amount and sophistication of advertising within its games. Though advertising has appeared in video games for more than two decades, the EA plan involves the live updating of ads via the internet and a greater use of space within games for advertising.

The games developer says that it will use new technology to build ads into hoardings, billboards and vehicles that can be updated over the internet. It will launch the capability in seven games, it said.

"The situation described would be product placement rather than advertising," said an ASA spokeswoman. "Ads would be at the beginning of the game, and we would regulate them."

"At the moment if you get something like that in a TV programme, such as a lorry with branding on it seen in Coronation Street, that is regulated by Ofcom," she said. "But if it was something that you click on and it plays you an advert in a pop up window, we would regulate that as advertising. Until we see the games, we would not know for sure if it was something we would regulate or not."

Television regulator Ofcom said that it would not regulate games. "Product placement means the prominent display of a brand name on a product used or talked about by a character," said an Ofcom spokesman. "If this is what you're referring to then there's currently no regulation that applies, unlike on TV – certainly not by Ofcom in any case."

EA's move into sophisticated in-game advertising has long been expected. Market research firm Yankee Group has said that the market will grow from the current $56 million a year to $732m a year by 2010. Some industry estimates claim that advertising can add between $1 and $2 in profits to a game typically costing $50.

EA said that it would use technology from Microsoft and from IGA Worldwide to place ads within games. The increasing trend for gamers to play via online link-ups means that internet updates to ads are possible on a large scale for the first time.