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Simon Cowell Getty 2.jpg

Why is Every Celebrity Doing Ads for Mobile Games Now?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | February 21, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | February 21, 2024 |

Simon Cowell Getty 2.jpg

Do you think Simon Cowell actually plays Royal Match? I keep seeing him on my TV (and YouTube ads, and Instagram ones too) shilling a bog-standard Mobile game that you can find dozens of versions of on the app store. They’re clearly hastily made spots, with Cowell and his glowing veneers not offering much in terms of actorly skill against a cheap set. I remember reading a piece a few years ago where Cowell claimed he didn’t even have a smartphone, so this Royal Match lark must be extremely gripping.

Sponsored content is everywhere. We live in the age of the ad and have done so for several decades now, but the vast commodification of all public and private space has made such things nigh-on inescapable. Everyone is doing it too, from micro-influencers to headlining stars. And why not? There’s no such thing as too much money, apparently, especially when you have tons of it at your disposal. We’ve moved past the tummy teas and tooth whiteners. Now, every celebrity you know is slapping their face on adverts for mobile games: Pedro Pascal, Kathy Bates, Sarah Jessica Parker, a ton of people from Suits, Kylie Jenner, about 60% of all British TV presenters, Jason Alexander, and too many others to count. While it is hilarious to watch some of these B-Listers plug a game with all the enthusiasm of a probation hearing, it does make one wonder how these ads became inescapable.

Traditionally, celebrity endorsements were designed to forge a thorough connection between the person and the product. The idea was to imbue the car or lipstick or Japanese whisky with the aura of that famous individual, thus making consumers feel their own connection to them. If Kate Moss looks that good in, say, Revlon mascara then maybe I will too. There’s a reason we see so many celebrities as the faces of beauty and scent brands. They help to craft a narrative of style and personality. Julia Roberts is effervescent and joyful. Elle Fanning is youthful and fun. Charlie Theron is one of a lineage of legendary beauties. And so on. So, when we see a familiar face doing an obvious cash grab for something we don’t expect or associate with them, it sets off alarm bells. The ad loses some of its potency. How do you balance that out? Well, when it comes to these mobile games, sheer quantity seems to be the strategy. More ads. Everywhere. Just bloody unavoidable. If nothing else, it does reveal that some celebrities probably aren’t as cash rich as they would like you to believe. Kylie Jenner and her mother spent months trying to wrangle good headlines to ‘prove’ that she was a real billionaire, but she still has to do stuff like this? Okay.

When we see this glut of endorsements for a singular product or type, one cannot help but wonder how big the money is behind the scenes. Even the shadiest celebrity doing the most half-arsed plug lends a sort of credibility to the item. If nothing else, it makes it clear that the company has deep pockets, and we continue to listen to those with money (or the illusion of it) because capitalism sucks and the system is inescapable. It’s how we ended up with people like Tom Brady shilling crypto, the act of a millionaire being in bed with other seeming millionaires seen as a sound image for general investment. Look at how that ended.

The pockets clearly run deeper than one initially foresaw. According to The Sun, Simon Cowell was paid a seven-figure sum to shill Royal Match. A source told the publication, ‘Simon rarely puts his name to anything for advertising but the offer from this was too good to turn down.’ I bet! Celebs can make a ton of cash from advertising, as the Super Bowl commercial frenzy can attest to. Still, a million as the bare minimum to plug a free mobile game is unexpected and a tad suspicious. You don’t see AAA companies putting that cash on the table for their games.

Tatty pay-to-play mobile games aren’t the soulless ecocidal evil of ugly ape NFTs, but it is a notoriously nasty market that thrives on gambling-style tactics and a wide targeting of young users, often under the age of 18. A 2023 article from the Guardian noted how games like Farmville and Candy Crush used the same techniques utilized by slot machines to feed people’s addictions. Game developers like Tribeflame bragged about the ‘tricks’ used by mobile gaming to get users to pay more and more money into their machine. Examples offered include pressuring them with time-limited deals to spend money to get further in a level, and making the game artificially tougher for those who don’t.

This is sadly not limited to mobile games, as AAA companies like Blizzard and Ubisoft were called out for use of ‘loot boxes’ that encourage players to put down potentially thousands of dollars. One person quoted in the Guardian piece said that he had ‘spent well in excess of £10,000 on player packs in the FIFA football game, where players can buy loot boxes that contain mystery footballers. Bundles of points to spend on loot boxes sell for as much as £87.99.’ Players like this are a minority of the overall userbase, but they’re so crucial to the ecosystem that they’re cruelly nicknamed ‘whales’ by developers. Now imagine your kid is playing one of these mobile games because they saw some celeb they love tell them to download it, and now your credit card is showing purchases of thousands of dollars for extra gems. The exploitation is a feature, not a bug.

Dream Games, the Istanbul-based company that makes Royal Match, is valued at $2.75 billion.

It must be tough to turn down a million-dollar payday, even if you’re already wealthy and supposedly above endorsements. I can’t say I’d reject that offer. Famous people and their teams aren’t typically concerned with the ethics of such a gig. It’s how you end up with Scarlett Johansson choosing a SodaStream deal over a role as an ambassador for Oxfam when it was called out that the company in question is built on occupied land in the West Bank (she later defended that choice.) It’s why a ton of celebrities who wouldn’t shut up about NFTs are really quiet these days (hello, Reese Witherspoon.) Encouraging us plebs to hand over our money for something that might burn us badly is the entire agenda of an endorsement, and as long as they get paid, what happens afterward is none of their business. It’s only a game, right?