Mobile games often take a moment to stop players to present an ad so the player can either attempt to skip it or win in-game currency. According to Bloomberg, getting that currency automatically sets up a podcast to download onto a player's device, quietly boosting a podcast's listener and download numbers.
Nearly all podcasts feature ad breaks, and downloading episodes serve as the primary metric for ad sales. Ads become inserted into an episode once it's downloaded, which is then counted by the sales team of an ad company.
What isn't made clear about all this is whether or not mobile developers are aware that ads in their games are being used for podcast downloads. In August, Google Play devs were given guidelines that prohibited "unexpected ads," which this arguably falls under to some degree.
In August, the ad fraud detection company DeepSee published a research paper detailing how podcast publishers use games as a way to accrue downloads. Using the mobile game Subway Surfers, DeepSee determined that during that month, the game was used by multiple companies, including the New York Post and iHeart Media.
Subway Surfers is a 2012 endless runner for iOS and Android whose inclusion is noteworthy. It was reported as the most downloaded mobile game of the 2010s, and has been downloaded over 3 billion times.
Those podcasts networks and others, said Bloomberg, are employing games via a third-party company called Jun Group, which specializes in consumer awareness of products, brands, and podcasts. To CEO Corey Weiner, "Every publisher, every content creator, has invested in marketing to promote themselves since the dawn of time, and this is just another way of doing it."
Whether this tactic breaches some kind of ethical code (to say nothing of legal ones) is tricky to determine, since this question has never been raised before. Larry Chiagouris, who works at Pace University as a marketing professor, told Bloomberg that while this isn't really illegal, it's also not a victimless crime.
"If someone is trying to play a game and that’s the purpose of this interaction, they may just be eager to play the game and are not that interested in the information being shared," he said.
Added DeepSee's co-founder Rocky Moss, “No one really asked questions about this, or what the experience is like for users."
With the podcast industry expected to grow over $4 billion in revenue by 2024, the methods used to bring in ad revenue will warrant further scrutiny. Continuing the practice of quietly downloading episodes onto a player's phone, particularly as there have been conversations about the content of specific podcasts and how it affects young listeners, runs the risk of going down an avenue these companies may not like.