The advertising watchdog said that the advert for 'Hitman: Absolution' was not in breach of UK rules governing marketing and promotions despite the fact that children aged under 18 had been able to view it on the Hitman Facebook page.
Video game developer Square Enix Limited (SEL) had used age restriction settings to prevent under-18s viewing the advert on Facebook or on YouTube where the ad was also uploaded, but a "technical error" enabled under-18s to view the material on the Facebook page for a time, according to the ASA ruling.
ASA had received two complaints about the advert, one of which challenged whether the advert was socially irresponsible. That claim was made on the basis that although the product would appeal to teenage boys the ad for the game also had "glamorised and condoned violence, particularly towards women".
In accordance with the Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code), advertisers must ensure that their marketing communications are "prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society".
ASA, which monitors compliance with the CAP Code, ruled that because SEL had not targeted its advert towards under-18s, the ad itself was not socially irresponsible.
"We agreed with the complainant that the product was likely to appeal to teenage boys under 18 years of age," the watchdog said in its adjudication. "However, we noted the ad was accessed via the advertiser's YouTube channel and Facebook page, and that both avenues of access were age-restricted to website users who were 18 or over."
"We were concerned that a technical error had meant that European Facebook users had, for a time, been able to access the ad without an age-restriction, but we noted the advertiser had taken swift action to correct the error when they became aware of it and they had not targeted the ad at those under 18 at any time. We concluded that, because we considered the ad did not glamorise or condone violence, and the advertiser had taken steps to prevent those who were under 18 from viewing it, it was not socially irresponsible," it added.
ASA said that the advert had been directed towards over-18s who would have been "familiar" with the game and who would have actively been seeking access to the material. As a result it said that the advert had complied with CAP Code rules.
"The ASA acknowledged the ad included scenes of graphic violence in which a man fought a group of women wearing sexually provocative clothing," the adjudication said. "We acknowledged some viewers might find the women's clothing gratuitous and offensive, and the idea of a man fighting women distressing and offensive. However, we noted the ad was age-restricted, and accessed via a Facebook page and YouTube channel which were specifically about the Hitman game."
"We considered it was likely that internet users who viewed the ads would therefore have specifically sought out material relating to the game and would be familiar with its premise and the types of characters and imagery which featured in the ad. We also considered that, in addition to the age-restrictions, the 18 rating at the beginning of the ad clearly signposted to viewers that the content would be of a particular type," ASA said.
The watchdog said that the context in which the fighting was "initiated" and the "respectful gesture" of the main male character in "closing the eyes of one of the dead women" showed that the violence the man engaged in was "neither random nor sexually motivated". This would have been clear "even to viewers unfamiliar with the game," it added.
"Whilst we acknowledged that some viewers might find the ad distressing and offensive, we concluded that, because it was age-restricted and unlikely to be viewed by those unfamiliar with the game, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress to viewers of the Hitman Facebook page and YouTube channel," ASA said. "We also considered the ad did not glamorise violence generally, or violence towards women in particular, and we concluded it was not likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour."
Under the CAP Code marketing communications that "contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence" are prohibited. The Code requires that advertisers take "particular care" to "avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age". The Code does, though, enable marketing communications to be "distasteful". However, although advertisers are "are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material", the fact that a product is "offensive to some people" is not a reason of itself to hold an ad in breach of the Code, according to the text.
The CAP Code also requires that advertisers do not "cause fear or distress" in promotions "without justifiable reason". Even if that fear or distress can be justified, it must not be "excessive". The Code states that "marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention", whilst marketing communications that contain material "that is likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour" are prohibited.
The European Commission has been urged to draw up specific regulations to protect children from harmful advertising and damaging online content. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which represents civil society and professional groups in EU member states, said the rules were necessary to deal with the "new reality" of the increasing number of children granted unsupervised access to television and the internet.