How the Marketing Behind Insane and Deceptive Mobile Ads Works

Have you or a loved one fallen victim to a mobile ad encouraging you to save a king from peeing his pants? You’re not alone.

Like many others, I sometimes reach for my phone to keep myself busy instead of sitting alone with my thoughts. Two months ago, I finally downloaded one of those mobile game apps – one that resembles “Guitar Hero”. As a freemium app, I sometimes have to sit through 30-second ads before getting to play the game.

And wow, I have never experienced such quick, unmitigated, cringe-induced rage.

As a marketer, I feel compelled to recognize certain standards in the industry. Entertaining ads work really well with consumers while disruptive ones do not. Young generations generally hate ads. You get the point.

So, when I find myself watching these mobile game ads, I really, really begin to question everything I know. And we absolutely need to talk about it – someone out there has to know what I have gone through.

“Royal Match”: Help, the King is about to Drown

I have encountered probably twenty different versions of ads promoting “Royal Match,” essentially a basic puzzle game featuring a king and his castle. 

For example, in one, the king finds himself underwater – and you need to clear blocks above so he can swim to the surface. In every single one, the example game always fails. And it always challenges viewers with a snarky, “can you do it better?”

And you know what? I probably could. But that would be beside the point: the actual game has none of that.

Let me repeat, the game has none of these save-the-king puzzles. In fact, you literally solve puzzles to decorate the castle. These ads unapologetically advertise high-stakes, the-king-could-die-or-pee puzzles. But when you download the app, you just pick out drapery for his castle through mini-games.

Barring the legality of false advertising – which we discuss later on in this article – surely players of the game recognize this disconnect, delete the game, and leave negative reviews? Not at all – the game actually has a 4.7 out of over 449,000 ratings.

Nearly half a million people have played this game, so what gives – does misleading advertising work? In a sad way, yes.

In the world of mobile game advertising, companies want viewers of their ads to download the game. To compel users to do so, Royal Match has employed strategies dependent on frustrating, “I-can-do-better” gameplay and muted disappointment.

Firstly, every single Royal Match ad ends in a failure. And often, the sample gameplay features a player making an easily avoidable mistake. Immediately, we feel pulled in to fix the error of the player.

Secondly, saving the king seems like an arguably more interesting game. If the sample gameplay showed someone solving puzzles to decorate a castle, I surely would tune it out. 

But the gameplay seen on the ads is only a few degrees removed from what you actually do in the game. When users realize this after downloading, their disappointment becomes muted. In other words, the gameplay is close enough where it seems to not matter.

“My Fantasy”: Strangely Discriminatory Against Those in Need

In “My Fantasy: Choose Your Story,” a role-playing romance game, users get to participate in several different, often steamy scenarios.

Unlike Royal Match, My Fantasy’s ads seem to align with gameplay. In the ad, you see the main character – always a woman – fall into some weirdly misogynistic situation because a man dislikes their appearance. As the user, you must help the main character dress to impress.

Aside from the initially problematic premise, the game just advertises itself as playing glorified dress-up with some story elements. Interested viewers (i.e., not me) can download the app and have a fairly similar experience.

But the ads often have a far worse premise to them.

In one ad, a woman with unshaved legs walks into a pool. Suddenly, a lifeguard pops up and yells, straight-up, “no homeless people!”

The woman runs away and, of course, the sample gameplay tries to make her appearance suitable for the man but fails every time. She walks back into the pool, and the man calls 911. For some reason, the game always starts by shaving her legs – the one part of the gameplay that gives the user points.

It baffles me how ads for a game with more than 7,300 ratings appear to work. In fact, I see these same ads all the time.

So, from a marketing and advertising perspective, why do these ads get users to download the game?

As with Royal Match, the ads present a failure – and you, as the user, must download the app if you want to correct it. If you watch enough of these mobile ads, you will find yourself indefinitely frustrated.

Unlike Royal Match, however, the ads’ sample gameplay aligns with user expectations. When viewers download the game, they, too, can participate in digital misogyny and help the woman get a man.

As for the problematic, “no homeless people” nonsense, segmentation could help explain its purpose. The target market for these games seems generally older given its heavy reliance on gender roles to drive its stories. Therefore, interested users likely won’t mind the problematic content.

“Merge Mansion”: A Murderous Grandma on the Run

If you thought the previous set of ads both frustrated and concerned you, Merge Mansion will absolutely destroy you.

In the game, you essentially clean up a big mansion. As the main character, you work to refurbish an old home by playing mini-games. Pretty standard, right? Likely little room to insert a complex story, so surely a simple, wholesome game.

Not so fast.

In most ads, the main character seems to find herself devastated after her wedding. What happened exactly? We will never know. But she somehow finds her house burned to the ground, so her grandma hooks her up with an old home.

Then the ads usually show a few sample puzzles. At this point, the game seems pretty wholesome. A grandma and her granddaughter are on a mission to build a beautiful home. Lovely.

But suddenly, the main character hears the police. And who’s getting cuffed? Grandma. Why is she getting arrested? We will never know.

Before the police drive off, the grandma lifts her hand to the window – and the main character sees “he is alive” written on it. In another version of the ad, the grandma wrote “you’re next” on the palm of her hand.

I implore you to read that over one more time before moving on.

Yes, Merge Mansion’s ads are insane. Yes, the stories presented in these ads have no place in the actual game itself. But did this deliberately crazy advertising strategy work for Merge Mansion?

Given it went viral in late 2021, apparently yes.

Twitter users immediately gave these ads a lot of attention. Kotaku even ran a story dissecting the innumerable alternative versions of Merge Mansion’s ads. They even ran fully cinematic ads featuring Kathy Bates.

For just one moment, please think about how much money this game had to pay Kathy Bates to star in their ads.

The outrageousness of the grandma implying she killed her granddaughter’s husband alongside the complete disconnect between the ads and game made Merge Mansion go viral. Even if the stories felt like misleading advertising, it clearly hasn’t hurt their 4.6 rating on the app store.

Okay, so these relatively misleading, often insane ads appear to work. But how do mobile game advertisers keep getting away with this?

Misleading Mobile Ads are Illegal – but the Law Doesn’t Care

Unfortunately for many mobile game advertisers, falsely misleading viewers in ads is illegal per advertising rules established by the Federal Trade Commission. In fact, advertisers cannot “deliberately lie or mislead their audience about their product”.

Rejoice! Pack your bags, advertisers. You’re on your way out. In the words of grandma, you’re next.

But no, mobile games will continue to advertise this way – because the FTC just doesn’t care. Freemium mobile apps have little impact on the majority of consumers’ lives barring occasional annoyance (e.g., myself). And while a lot of these games manipulate consumers with low impulse control, advertising comes before any of that.

So, while these false advertisements are illegal, the FTC needs to enforce the rule to get them banned.

Until that happens, we will just have to keep on the lookout for more of grandma’s antics. Maybe Kathy Bates will kill her granddaughter through a puzzle. Who knows?

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  1. Leah says:

    I came across your article after being inundated with Royal Match ads. The premise of the ads is not appealing, and your description of the game is even less so. I cannot believe these games get such high ratings. Your rationale makes sense, but the whole thing seems so dumb.

  2. Vira Motorko says:

    I can say a few words about Merge Mansion as a satisfied player. The crazy ads don’t lie about the gameplay: matching items to refurbish the mansion is in the ad and is in the game. There are hints throughout the game about something fishy: those are objectively rare but frequent enough that it doesn’t frustrate me that we will never know what’s going on. Grandma’s behaviour is as strange as promised.
    Royal Match, on the other hand, doesn’t deliver that much.

    The question that lives in my mind is why the developers don’t actually give the market a king-saving game. Why lie if you can just do that? Is there something prohibitive here?

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