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How Advertising Is Becoming Child's Play


Janet Raloff

Science News Online/ July 29, 2006

Not long ago, food advertising appeared primarily in newspapers, magazines, and television. Today, though, manufacturers are embracing new media to ever more effectively target their youngest consumers: children. A new study conducted for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation analyzes how these companies are feeding their messages to tots.

The number of Web sites hosting pages for children is large and growing, the study found. Most Web sites developed by major food companies disguise at least some of their commercial messages as online entertainment, says study author Elizabeth S. Moore of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In other words, even children whose parents have taught them that commercials can contain exaggerations might not recognize online selling.

One gambit that's popular: online games that reinforce logos and characters associated with a manufacturer's products, such as Ronald McDonald or Cap'n Crunch. Many companies have opted to make these so-called advergames competitive. This encourages return visits by kids who want to better their scores or graduate to a higher game level. And what could be better for a marketer than having kids recruit their friends for competition on the Web site? Companies call this person-to-person spread of a commercial message "viral marketing."

Make no mistake, Moore says, advergaming engages a lot of children. More than 13 million U.S. youngsters have access to the Internet, and she cites Department of Education statistics indicating that approximately 64 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 with access to the Internet go there to play games. While a television ad may capture a child's attention for 30 seconds, she notes that youngsters may spend some 25 minutes at a gaming site. Finally, while economics and nutrition may be the focus of a food marketer's message to adults, she finds that sites for kids "are designed to be playful and highly involving, with 'brand immersion' as an essential objective."

Advergaming is a concern for many food-policy analysts because it threatens to confuse the already blurry edges of what is and isn't advertising to the most naive segment of society. The health community shares this concern and another: that the foods generally promoted in the new media tend to be among those contributing to the obesity epidemic in children—high-calorie, fatty, heavily sweetened, and low-fiber fare.

"The world in which children encounter advertising is changing rapidly," concludes Moore. Her study—which bills itself as the first comprehensive analysis of the nature and scope of online food advertising to children—finds that television is still the advertising king and that "new media such as the Internet are not displacing television viewing but rather supplementing it."

What strikes her most about the Web sites, she told Science News Online, "is that this is a very different way of communicating with children." Unlike a television commercial, advergaming is interactive and can deeply immerse a child in the activity. Says Moore, "we really don't know how children are responding" to the Web sites' messages, at least in terms of how those children choose foods.

Lots to choose from

For her new study, Moore selected 96 food brands that were well known and targeted to children. She then hunted for any marketing of these brands to children on the Web. Sites aimed exclusively at the parents of young children were excluded. Eighty-two of the brands hosted Web sites that either directly targeted kids or offered online content that would interest them.

Some 4,000 unique Web pages were identified. Trained judges then graded each page's content. They evaluated such issues as the type of material featured; how many times per page a company logo, character, or brand typically occurred; how many advergames were available per product or featured brand; and whether the page included other features, such as promotions, membership offers, viral-marketing efforts, and movie or television tie-ins.

For instance, the M&M candies' site ( features interactive, animated tie-ins to the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Talking candies explain the rules of pirating. Another, more sophisticated offering on this site—aimed at young teens—is a virtual comic book that reveals, page-by-page, what happens to candies in an adventure story dubbed "The Swarm."

Overall, Moore found, 70 of the Web sites posted at least one game featuring food brands, although most sites had considerably more—one site included 67 separate games. Sites hosting lots of games tended to appeal to young children and typically featured puzzles or games with simple rules, such as memory-testing games. In others, like Nestlé's Bop-a-Pop (at, children would earn points for using a virtual mallet to hammer down frozen treats that randomly pop up. But kids had to pay attention, because bopping any of the frogs that occasionally popped up would take away points.

Arcade, sports, and adventure games predominated and were usually accompanied by slick animation and music. "The clear emphasis through the games is entertainment and brand reinforcement," Moore says. For example, in Bop-a-Pop, the Nestlé ice cream logo is on the side of the virtual arcade game.

Moore found that almost half of all games offer multiple levels of play and more than two-thirds awarded game points. One way to encourage kids to stay at a site: 71 percent of games explicitly asked a player whether he or she wanted to "play again."

An option on some sites, Moore found, was the chance to view movie trailers or standard television commercials. If the viewer were a registered member at that site, such activities might win stamps that could later be redeemed to play special games elsewhere on the site. Moore found that slightly more than half of the kids' sites had such television commercials available.

Another way to blur the line between product endorsement and gaming is to offer premiums via products. For instance, kids playing Honeycomb Monster Truck at the Post Cereals Web site ( might learn about Postoken codes inside real boxes of cereal. Getting Mom to buy the cereal and then entering the code online would award a player a "big shield" for his or her virtual monster truck. That shield would reduce the truck's vulnerability to sustaining damage during a game. Most of these types of activities "directly link consumption to the quality of the Internet experience," Moore says.

Some sites also offered children the opportunity to customize their portal—to make the site special to them—and to send e-mails to friends about what they'd seen.

When is it an ad?

Even young children can generally tell when the show they're watching takes a commercial break for messages from its sponsors. To help reinforce that distinction, federal law prohibits program-long infomercials aimed at kids or products that are sold by a program's hosts. It's often not as easy for children to discern when a Web site goes "commercial."

Even when kids do recognize that their Internet experience is advertising, Moore asks, "Do they really care? Because these sites are fun, entertaining, creative, does it affect how children process what they're looking at? These are important new issues."

The Post Cereals site contains small print at the bottom of each page that reads: "The games and other activities on this Web site include messages about the products Kraft sells." It's a rare example of a site that exhibits reminders that even its computer games are ad-driven, Moore says. "It should be recognized, however, that no published research yet exists that shows how effective these . . . reminders are for children," Moore notes, much less where and how such reminders should be displayed for maximum impact.

Manufacturers aren't only clever in their strategy for winning youngsters' attention, Moore notes, they're also thrifty. A typical television commercial in 2004 cost some $7 to more than $30 per 1,000 viewers expected to watch it. However, "there are no media-distribution costs once a Web site has been created," Moore says. The result: Advergames might cost as little as $2 per 1,000 youngsters reached.

Quite a few sites offer sweepstakes or other contests—some with highly valued prizes, such as a Nintendo system or a trip to Nickelodeon's movie studio in Los Angeles. Three quarters of the sites Moore studied also offer free take-home "extras" to further reinforce brand recognition and extend the ad experience.

Such extras might include downloadable computer wallpaper or a screensaver that features the brand's logo or characters. Other freebies include printable baseball cards, masks, or iron-on T-shirt designs. Moore's study notes that some sites offered party invitations to be e-mailed, printable shopping lists for the next time Mom would go to the grocery store, and printable light-switch covers and calendars.

A mere 7 percent of the sites offered health and wellness features, such as exercise journals, brand-decorated height charts to print out, or safe-cooking tips.

Moore, of course, is hardly the first to recognize the potent appeal that these Web sites and other types of advertising can have for children. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine issued a report entitled Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? The institute created the report at the behest of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which wanted a review of published data on the marketing of food and beverages to children. CDC's concern was the rising incidence of childhood obesity .

This study found that overall, "more than $10 billion per year is spent for all types of food and beverage marketing to children and youth in America." That makes sense, since children are major consumers, spending more than $200 billion annually, according to the report. In fact, it noted, children "are increasingly making decisions at younger ages in the marketplace, either in ways that are independent of parental guidance, or as agents influencing the choices and purchasing decisions of their parents and caregivers."

The leading consumer categories affected by children's decision-making: food and beverages, particularly candy, carbonated soft drinks, and salty snacks.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers have acted on such data, according to the Institute of Medicine report. It noted that over the decade ending in 2004, "the rate of increases in the introduction of new food and beverage products targeted to children and youth substantially outpaced the rate for those targeting the total market."

To do list

The Institute of Medicine report offered a list of recommendations to limit the impact of advergaming and other marketing strategies promoting unhealthful foods. They included:

  • Getting food and beverage makers to "use their creativity, resources, and full range of marketing practices to promote and support more healthful diets for children and youth."
  • Developing a new code of conduct governing marketing to children, which should limit the use of brand-linked animated characters to the promotion of foods healthful for children.
  • And directing "the nation's formidable research capacity" to evaluate the extent to which marketing influences food and drink choices by children.

Food-marketing experts, such as Daniel Acuff of YMS Consulting and the Character Lab in Arcadia, Calif., argue that the nutrition community needs to go even further, fighting fire with fire. Manufacturers' animated brand mascots are fun and compelling. So, he argues, a cadre of child-friendly superheroes should be extolling the benefits of good nutrition. Think Popeye and his spinach updated for 21st-century animation and story lines.

In fact, one lab experimented with just that idea last year. Free Range Graphics, run by friends who were Star Wars fans since childhood, produced an online parody of Star Wars timed to coincide with the commercial theater release of Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. Starring supermarket foods, the miniadventure was titled Store Wars: The Organic Rebellion (see Star Wars Goes Organic). Indeed, the animated spoof extolled the virtues of organic farming in a winning fashion with characters such as Cuke Skywalker, Darth Tater, and the wise and always inspirational Obi-Wan Cannoli.

Unfortunately, Acuff observes, such efforts are rare, and their impact usually far less compelling or influential than the effect of cartoons and games sponsored by the fast food, cereal, and candy companies. Still, he says the message is getting through to industry and marketing executives that youngsters' health is at stake. Personally, he's in discussions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop healthful-eating mascots and diet-related entertainment for kids as young as preschoolers.

Moore says that parents also need to play a role. Indeed, she recommends that "parents sit down with their kids and look at some of these sites." Afterwards, they can discuss some issues that these sites raise. Topics might include why a Web site is encouraging a child to send out an electronic card inviting friends to visit the site, why it's encouraging membership, and how the games on the Web site might be prompting a player to purchase a product.

Fortunately, she notes, online technology can be used to teach children nutrition, "and we're seeing the beginnings of that because of all of the concern about childhood obesity." One example: Kraft Foods recently announced that, by year end, it will advertise only its more-nutritious, "better for you" products on its Internet site for children. At least some companies are "trying to be very responsive to how the community feels about such issues," says Moore.



Institute of Medicine. McGinnis, J.M., J.A. Gootman, and V.I. Kraak, eds. 2006. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Washington D.C.: National Academies Press. Available at

Moore, E.S. 2006. It's Child's Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children. Kaiser Family Foundation Report (July 19). Available at


Further Readings:

Moreira, N. 2005. Soft drinks as top calorie culprit. Science News Online (June 18). Available at

Raloff, J. 2005. When kids eat out. Science News Online (Oct. 8). Available at

______. 2005. Docs shy away from telling kids they're heavy. Science News 168(Sept. 24):206. Available at

______. 2005. Star Wars goes organic. Science News Online (May 21). Available at

______. 2004. Honey, let's shrink the kids. Science News Online (Oct. 9). Available at

______. 2004. When it's no longer baby fat. Science News Online (April 17). Available at

______. 2003. School lunches are struggling to earn high marks. Science News Online (May 17). Available at



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