The UK’s advertising watchdog chastised Spotify this week for releasing an “unduly distressing” ad that, it argues, improperly targeted children. The ad shows young people listening to Camila Cabello’s song “Havana”, which in turn wakes up some scary-looking dolls that go on to terrorise them.
The Spotify pre-roll ad appeared on YouTube in June, according to an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling published on Wednesday, and “featured a number of scenes in quick succession and tense sound effects that imitated the style of a horror film”.
The ad opens with a group of young people drinking coffee and listening to Camila Cabello’s song “Havana”. A few seconds in, a horror-style doll shows up and continues to menace the characters, with the implication that the song conjures it. “Killer songs you can’t resist,” it says at the end of the ad.
The advertisement certainly has elements of horror, but edges more on darkly humorous. I can’t speak for a five-year-old, but that doll is certainly nightmarish.
Hey @Camila_Cabello! "Havana" is a killer song we can't resist. Nor can millions of fans all over the world. Nor can this funny doll thing in our commercial. Listen free on Spotify. pic.twitter.com/w2qu1bQBZk
— Spotify (@Spotify) May 15, 2018
“The fact the ad was set inside the home, including a bedtime setting, and featured a doll, meant it was particularly likely to cause distress to children who saw it,” the ASA wrote in its ruling. “We did not consider that the context of the ad justified the distress.”
The primary complaints against the ad, which came from a parent whose children viewed it, were that it was both “unduly distressing” and “irresponsibly targeted”.
The former point is obviously subjective, but the latter argues that Spotify’s ad, which was for a more adult audience, was in part targeted towards content that “was more likely to appeal to children,” the ruling said.
The parent who filed the complaint said it appeared before a kid-friendly YouTube video connected to Hello Neighbour, a game with an ESRB rating of “Everyone 10+”. The ASA ruling states that while Hello Neighbour is actually a “stealth horror game”, it “included colourful cartoonish images” and was rated as suitable for younger players.
Spotify argues that the ad was intended for an audience aged 18 to 34, and that its data shows that 89 per cent of viewers of the channel where the ad was streamed were 18 or older.
The company also noted, according to the ruling, that the ad included a function that allowed users to skip after five seconds, that viewers weren’t confronted by the horror doll until 12 seconds in, “and that between 7 and 12 seconds the ad introduced cues as to the tone of the ad”.
The ASA, which is self-regulatory (meaning its call to actions are simply recommendations), told Spotify that its future ads shouldn’t distress children “without justifiable reason” and that any ads “unsuitable for viewing by children” must not be inappropriately targeted.