Matthew Miller
Nov 5, 2021

Was this Squid Game promo appropriate? Industry opinion is split

SPOT SURVEY RESULTS: Nearly half of respondents to our survey say the activation crossed a line. And high fractions of respondents also favour more caution by brands—and even regulation—when it comes to exposing kids to marketing for adult fare.


In a Campaign Asia-Pacific Spot Survey about a Sydney marketing stunt that placed a large doll figure from the Netflix series Squid Game right in one the city's most scenic spots, a high percentage of respondents proclaimed the activation inappropriate. In addition, significant fractions of respondents came out in favour of limits—and even increased regulation—when it comes to brands exposing children to marketing for adult-oriented products and content.   

The survey drew 36 respondents who work for agencies, brands, media properties and tech companies in the marketing sphere in 11 markets across APAC, as well as several respondents based in APAC who are in regional or global roles. (See details below.)

Key findings:

  • A slim majority (51.7%) considered Netflix's Sydney doll, which appeared over Halloween weekend, to be appropriate.  
  • About 80% of respondents believe brands have a responsibility to limit kids' exposure to marketing for adult fare, and more than a third said brands have "a high degree of responsibility" (34.5% chose '5' on a scale of 0 to 5). 
  • 86% agreed that brands need to limit marketing for adult products and content to channels where kids are less likely to see it, although most of this group said it depends on the situation.
  • 45% of respondents were willing to entertain the possibility that tighter regulation is needed for advertising/promotion of content with adult themes. 

In an industry normally seen as fairly liberal and permissive, the close results on these issues are a bit surprising. Admittedly, a survey like this is by no means scientific; the sample size is too small to be truly representative of the entire industry, and it's possible those who found the doll stunt offensive were simply more motivated to fill out the survey than those who weren't bothered by it. The fact that more of the respondents who were troubled by the doll and/or open to more limits on such marketing took the time to write open-ended responses (see below) backs up this hypothesis.

Details and respondents' takes

In open-ended responses, in general, those who pronounced the doll appropriate felt that it was innocuous to anyone without knowledge of the show, and that parents bear the responsibility for shielding their kids. Many of those who said it was inappopriate seemed to be reacting more to the show itself rather than Netflix's Sydney activation. 

"Yes" respondents said:

"Without the context of seeing the show, the activation doesn't show anything inappropriate for children."

"It's a job for the parents to explain to their young ones the difference between fiction, fantasy and reality. Parents should not allow kids access to any inappropriate content. However, it is their duty to explain to kids if a question is raised regarding certain topicswhen they come across such objects."

"If it is not harmful from an external perspective—i.e. only those who have watched the show will get it—then it is fine."

"I don't believe that the intention was to engage and entice children. Intention is important. If kids are accessing adult content on Netflix, that is a household issue, not Netflix who provide parental controls. If you aren't allowed to promote art in many ways for fear of children asking questions then all marketing and comms can easily be dissected and misappropriated."

"It is just one of the scenes in the drama and there is nothing violent in this activation. It is just like Marvel movies which also involves lots of fighting and killing scenes."

"It's the parent's responsibility to let the kids watch the show or not. The doll itself is not terrifying to children."

"People need to calm down. It's not violent itself, or offensive. If kids already know what Squid Game is and that it's violent, that's not the fault of the doll/OOH campaign. I think most kids would just think it's fun to look at. And if parents can't answer difficult questions for their kids that's their issue to deal with. Parents need to take some responsibility and stop blaming external forces for corrupting their children, if they can't handle the conversation."

"It's perfectly innocuous, without context. And if anything, it could be a respite from run-of-the-mill campaigns."

"We see things like these everyday. Just because something doesn’t fit a parent’s narrative, it shouldn’t be there?"

"No" repondents said:

"The programme is wholly inappropriate for kids—so the less who end up watching it the better. Plus the idea is pretty terrible, and designed to create the 'uproar' that has happened as a result."

"Not appropriate for public area."

"Perverse violence."

"You have no control over the audience reach when the show itself is very cleary targeted for 18+."

"What values are we trying to teach the kids and bring to the society? What purpose does it serve?"

"Why are there no boundaries towards creating interest + advertising + PR of a hyper violent show, regardless of its popularity?"

"Whilst the show features playground games, it is most certainly not meant for kids. Netflix deliberately chose to erect a cute doll to drive more subscriptions, why didn’t Netflix erect the doll shooting bullets from her eyes with thousands of falling folks dressed in green?"

"I agree that the content of the programme is for adult only, and therefore promotion need to be taken extra care, it’s like the ads for tobacco companies in the past."

In open-ended responses to this question, few of those who marked 0 through 3 commented at all. Those who marked 4 and 5 were more likely to comment. Interestingly, open-ended responses did not correlate predictably with the number the respondent selected; even among those choosing "a high degree of responsibility", some respondents felt that the Netflix's activation was perfectly acceptable. 

[Respondent marked 1] "Parents have a choice to not expose kids to adult-oriented products/content."

[3] "To a certain extent, extreme adult-oriented product should be confined to a space. However the responsibility is not fully on the brand too."

[4] "There is obviously a high responsibility and Netflix did not show anyone being killed as far as I could see on the picture. With the internet, kids can be exposed to a lot of 'bad' things, it is also the parents responsibilities to make sure they are not, or that it is explained in a proper way."

[4] "Brands should be responsible for not presenting adult concepts and products to children."

[4] "The best example is the prolific gambling ads that run during the footy. They're even integrated into the broadcast with their own segments, as if the gambling representative is a host. These are sports that kids watch religiously, and it's impossible for them to avoid it. The companies are normalising it, and kids will grow up thinking that everyone bets, all the time."

[4] "They have a responsibility, but parents do too."

[5] "It's basic responsibilty in a world that has already lost its moral direction."

[5] "This is a reflection of how we want our future generations to grow and how our future society to be."

[5] "The content of the show is a concern, the culture around the show is a concern, but so is advertising and trends around it."

[5] "Brands are and should be prevented for encouraging harm or coercing children. The placement of this piece is very public, but should all ads only appear behind closed doors? Do kids like dolls so much? Would modern kids think this is old-fashioned and boring? A good question to ask this team is whether they had that discussion and considered all risks."

[5] "Of course, there needs to be a significant level of responsibility and care when it comes to these things. If there was an activation that actually depicts the violence of Squid Game, then it would be grossly inappropriate. But without that, it's fine in my opinion."

Again, respondents who chose "Yes" or "It depends" in response to this question were more likely to provide comments than those who said "No".

Respondents who chose "Yes" said:

"It's manipulation to get kids hooked before they've had a chance to even consider it."

"The answer is so obvious it does not require any further explanation."

"Yes, although it is getting harder and harder to create boundaries and limits digitally and within groups. This points to larger systemic problems in advertising, media and entertainment."

"Aren’t alcohol, cigarettes and porn subject to this?"

Those choosing "It depends" said:

"Depends on the product and whether it can be marketed in a non-harmful way for children."

"Is Stranger Things an adult show or can kids also enjoy it? Who can measure and draw the lines? We live in a global world where kids will live totally different experiences. Of course we need to protect the children, but advertising will always include audiences that go beyond the ones targeted."

"If there is a wider community benefit then brands should act to minimise harm to children."

"You have to consider placement and messaging."

"It depends on the channel and context."

"Channels are increasingly blurred these days so you can't filter or block every single thing."

"If a child is motivated enough, they’ll find a way to learn about it eventually. Better for parents to supervise rather then to explore on their own."

A respondent who chose "No" said:

"Parental control works."

Those who chose "Yes" said:

"Yes, although then, how would we be able to regulate the ecosystem and ripple effects of such content/the show, ie influencer posts and YouTube spoofs about it, that the young would be able to access and see anyway?"

"Maybe some guidelines and industry standards, yes. There will always be differences of opinions, so you can't have one size fits all."

Those who chose "No" said:

"The problem isn't content with 'adult themes'. The problem is content that isn't considered 'adult' but should be, such as gambling."

"Classifications by censors in most countries come with rules and regulations already."

"I think there are already restrictions, say adult content is restricted to nighttime on TV."

"Think it's fine as it is."

Other comments

"Brands should not just jump on the trends just for the sake of it. It reflects the brand values and how it wants to relate to the wider community, not just its own target audience. Brands must be more responsible."

"I think there is a concern with how big tech platforms + Netflix have so much power and the algorithms nowadays to promote and accelerate interest in content that is not good for society. There is also a concern with how creators have increasing skills, talents and creative capabilities to create and produce things that look good but may be harmful for individuals, families and culture in the long term. I think its a problem that no one regulates the internet. Ultimately, it seems that individuals and organisations are all pursuing freedom—freedom to create or promote their own interest—but we are seeing a conflict of interests and responsibilities (ie freedom for one group impedes freedom for another group). Ultimately, we are all operating in silos but we affect each other more than we know, and more than ever." 

For the record

Here are some stats about the survey respondents.

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