11 Jun 2024

Project Makeover: The unhinged mobile game ads flooding social media

5:33 pm on 11 June 2024
Project Makeover: stinky woman

Photo: Screenshot / Project Makeover

A dishevelled girl covered in grime has perpetual flies floating above her head and a visible green stench emanating from her body. She smells so bad that her boyfriend is knocked to the ground when he gets a whiff of her. She's the product of a failed makeover; a walking train wreck you just can't look away from.

If you've trawled through any social sites in the last couple of years, chances are you've come across one of these bizarre ads for Project Makeover, the match-three mobile game by Magic Tavern. It's a free game with a simple premise: work with experts in fashion, hair and make-up, and interior design to give clients the makeover of their dreams, and complete match-three puzzles (similar to gem-swapping in Candy Crush Saga) to earn coins so you can continue buying the things you need for these tasks.

The product is nothing new - there's an array of different mobile games that offer the same functions in different settings - instead of makeovers, you might see ads for home renovation games, restaurant-running games, or even pimple-popping games.

However, it's Project Makeover's attention-grabbing, telenovela-style ads that set it apart.

Project Makeover: woman with fried hair

Photo: Screenshot / Project Makeover

The scenarios mostly follow a similar concept: an ungroomed or slovenly girl experiences social embarrassment in front of her boyfriend. Sometimes, there's a conventionally beautiful woman there to witness it all, and she walks away with the man. The lack of hygiene displayed by the first girl is always far-fetched - her hair is fried, she's covered in pimples, she smells horrific, and she roams around coated in a layer of mud.

In July 2023, New York's National Advertising Division of BBB National Programs challenged Magic Tavern, claiming the Project Makeover's ads depicted harmful negative gender stereotypes.

"The advertising depicts a female character who faces rejection and ridicule because her physical appearance changes from 'pretty' to ugly. Notably, the transition to ugly is highlighted by a change in the female character's clothing, hygiene, and make-up.

"It portrays women as helpless and social outcasts if they fail to maintain a feminine appearance conveying a misleading message that to be treated fairly, women must present themselves in a specific, feminine way. Additionally, NAD noted that the challenged advertisements do not reflect actual gameplay and that the negative stereotypes appear to be used only for shock value."

Project Makeover: two women with their boyfriends

Photo: Screenshot / Project Makeover

Magic Tavern officially discontinued the ads during the proceeding, but they continue to circulate online as digital copies. And the alleged harmful stereotypes, or misleading advertising, hasn't seemed to deter gamers either.

In the four years since its release, Project Makeover has surpassed more than 200 million all-time downloads and continues to generate around six million new players each month. The game also currently earns around $12 million each month, with an all-time revenue surpassing $600m.

Project Makeover: hairy woman

Photo: Screenshot / Project Makeover

But how does a free game generate revenue? With in-app purchases.

The in-game store is the backbone of match-three games. In the case of Project Makeover, it only offers one purchasable resource: gems. It may seem risky, but the gems are enticing - with gem packs ranging from $1.99 to $19.99, playing the game is an affordable venture for most casual gamers, and you don't necessarily need to pay for power up or buy extra moves either. Signing into Project Makeover from Facebook gives players a glittering 300 gem pack, which isn't a bad reward.

Christchurch gamer Mia Vee has spent an "unGodly number of hours" playing Project Makeover since downloading the app in 2021.

"These insane ads kept popping up on TikTok and I couldn't stop watching, I sent them to my friends every time. They were just so insane and hilarious; Magic Tavern definitely found the right audience with that one."

Vee says she's been sucked in by popular mobile games before.

"Match-three puzzle games are really easy to play and they require no thought. I'll just be watching something on my computer and playing on my phone. Royal Match, Home Design: House Makeover, Project Makeover all serve the same function.

"I probably would've eventually found my way to Project Makeover without the ads, but they're quite seductive just in how insane they are. The ads aren't actually anything like the game either, but that's beside the point, it's entertaining and it's fun."

The game may be a bit of mindless entertainment, but it does come at a cost. In the past two years, Vee has spent upwards of $200 on in-app purchases.

"It's like my secret shame. Honestly, it is addictive, and the price points get you so good. I think I spent the $1.99 a few times and then realised it was more value for money to just get the bigger packages. People usually get the Purse Full of Gems ($4.99) or Tiara Class Package ($9.99) because they can still justify it to themselves if it's under $10. Any more than that and it probably turns people off."

Why hasn't $200 turned Vee off?

"It's simple," she says. "I'm financially irresponsible and I love my stupid little phone games."

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