While Maria Julia Cassis was having a meal in her North London home, her 6-year-old son rushed into the dining room, looking pale. His puzzle game on an Android phone had been interrupted by a video displaying Hamas militants, fearful Israeli families, and blurred graphic content.
Over a black screen, a message from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs was conveyed to the first-grader: “WE WILL MAKE SURE THAT THOSE WHO HARM US PAY A HEAVY PRICE.”
Cassis, a 28-year-old barista from Brazil, expressed that the advertisement had a disturbing impact on her son, leading her to promptly remove the game. In a recent phone interview, she stated, “He was shocked. He literally said, ‘What is this disturbing ad doing in my game?'”
It remains unclear how the ad found its way into Saranga’s son’s video game. Nevertheless, her family’s experience is not unique. Helpleak has identified at least five other instances in various parts of Europe where the same pro-Israel video, featuring footage of rocket attacks, fiery explosions, and masked gunmen, was displayed to gamers, including several children.
In one instance, these ads were displayed within the popular “Angry Birds” game, developed by Rovio, a company owned by SEGA.
Rovio acknowledged that these ads featuring disturbing content had mistakenly appeared in their game and stated that they were currently taking manual steps to prevent their display. However, Rovio’s spokesperson, Lotta Backlund, did not specify which of their “dozen or so ad partners” had provided the ad in question.
David Saranga, the head of digital at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that the video was indeed a government-promoted ad. However, he expressed uncertainty about how it found its way into various games.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry initiated a broader advocacy campaign that included the use of the mentioned footage. They allocated $1.5 million for internet advertisements following the attack by Hamas on October 7, which targeted civilians in southern Israel, sparking the conflict in Gaza. Furthermore, instructions were given to advertisers to ensure that the content would not be shown to individuals under the age of 18.
Saranga defended the explicit content featured in the advertising campaign, emphasizing their intention to make the world comprehend the events that transpired in Israel, characterizing it as a “massacre.”
To determine the source of the ad placement in the games, Reuters reached out to 43 advertising firms listed as “third-party data partners” on Rovio’s website. Twelve of these partners, including Amazon, Index Exchange, and Pinterest, responded and disassociated themselves from responsibility for the ad’s appearance in Angry Birds.
Saranga noted that the ministry had collaborated with various ad companies, such as Taboola, Outbrain (OB.O), Alphabet’s Google, and X (formerly known as Twitter). However, Taboola and Outbrain denied any involvement in the gaming ads.
Google ran over 90 advertisements for the foreign ministry, but they did not provide details on where these ads were displayed. X, previously known as Twitter, did not respond to requests for comments regarding the matter.
In contrast, Reuters did not discover any signs of a similar digital advertising campaign by the Palestinian side. However, there were a few Arabic-language videos promoted by Palestine TV, which is linked to the Palestinian Authority.
The provided information discusses efforts made by the Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry to shape public opinion by sharing evidence of suffering in Gaza following the Israeli bombardment that occurred after the October 7 attack. However, it does not specify whether advertising was used as a means to achieve this goal. Additionally, representatives from Hamas, the governing Islamist movement in Gaza, did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comments regarding their media campaigns.
Furthermore, Helpleak documented six instances across Britain, France, Austria, Germany, and Holland where individuals observed the same or similar ads as Maria Julia Cassis’ son. These ads were found in various family-friendly digital games, including “Alice’s Mergeland,” “Stack,” “Balls’n Ropes,” “Solitaire: Card Game 2023,” and “Subway Surfers.”
Alexandra Marginean, a 24-year-old intern residing in Munich, expressed her surprise at encountering the pro-Israel video during her game of Solitaire, describing her reaction as highly intense.
Several game developers, including LazyDog Game, Ketchapp (Ubisoft-owned), nerByte (developer of Solitaire), Rollic (developer of Balls’n Ropes), and SYBO Games (developer of Subway Surfers), did not respond to inquiries seeking comments on the ads.
Both Apple and Alphabet’s Google, responsible for managing apps on their respective platforms (iOS and Android), redirected questions to the game developers themselves.
Advertising regulations differ from country to country. In Britain, where Cassis and her son live, the Advertising Standards Authority is responsible for overseeing publicity campaigns. They emphasized that advertisements featuring graphic content should, in general, be carefully targeted away from individuals under the age of 18.
Reported by Raphael Satter in Washington, with contributions from Sheila Dang and Katie Paul in New York; Edited by Ken Li and Lisa Shumaker.