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Is it a game or an advertisement?
As foodmakers tailor Web sites to children, consumer advocates find little nutritional value

By Marni Goldberg
Chicago Tribune,  July 20, 2006


WASHINGTON -- The object of the game is to sling milk at invading marshmallows, melting them before time expires. With codes from specially marked boxes of Lucky Charms cereal, players are outfitted with powers to destroy the marshmallow intruders.

The interactive Internet game, linked to the Lucky Charms site, is a marketing tool designed to appeal to children, and it's hardly unique. According to a report Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 85 percent of the leading food brands that target children on TV also have created online content to capture the attention of young Web surfers.

At Cheetos.com, Chester, a cheetah, finds himself chasing villains and trapped in a fiery lair, requiring the player's keyboard skills to save him. When visitors click on the "Games" icon, they are urged to try new "Crunchy Twisted" Cheetos. The Cap'n Crunch Web site features a game with falling "crunch'd up bunches" of cereal that players must maneuver to fit together.

Internet games and other children's activities on foodmakers' Web sites are drawing criticism from some nutrition advocates because of the climbing rate of childhood obesity, estimated to affect 17 percent of youths. As food packages steer kids to Web sites with the entertaining games, some health specialists worry about the potential effect on families' ability to teach healthy eating habits.

"Companies market a totally different diet as desirable to eat," said Margo Wooten, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Parents "are almost made out to be liars."

Although food advertising directed toward children has been studied in the past, Wednesday's report is the first comprehensive analysis of the reach of online food advertising.

Television advertising still far outstrips what is available online. But as Internet marketing grows, and as children become more adept at using computers, health specialists say the interactivity and intensity of online promotions, combined with the amount of time children spend viewing these sites, could have a large impact.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that studies health issues, identified 77 unique Web sites with content for children age 12 and under. Children ages 2 to 11 made 12.2 million visits to the Web sites used for the study in the second quarter of 2005, according to Nielsen NetRatings.

Nearly three-fourths of the sites included in the study featured "Advergames," in which companies used their own characters or brand logos in interactive games. On the Hershey's Web site, for example, players shoot syrup at edible objects in a game called the Syrup Squirt.

Some food manufacturers suggested the games aren't inherently bad for children.

Online advertising "certainly is a way that we talk to consumers, but relatively speaking it's a small part of our advertising mix," said Nancy Daigler, vice president for corporate and government affairs at Kraft Foods. "We think you can be a responsible marketer and still provide some fun for kids."

Some experts cite Kraft as a leader in trying to keep its advertising responsible.

But nutrition advocates say the Internet is a powerful way for makers of candy, snacks, sweet drinks and sugary cereal to encourage children to eat unhealthy food. "Overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, the Web sites that you are looking at are promoting foods of poor nutritional quality," Wooten said.

At Frito Lay, spokesman Jared Dougherty said the company's online games are a limited part of its marketing effort, and that Web advertising is balanced between its core products and lower calorie products.

Quaker, which manufactures Cap'n Crunch, said it does not target children under the age of 8. "Cap'n Crunch understands the importance of being a responsible marketer, and we follow established ad standards and practices," said spokesman Jamie Stein.

The Children's Advertising Review Unit, an internal watchdog group funded by the advertising industry, studies messages directed to children to ensure that they are truthful and appropriate. The group establishes guidelines, which advertisers are supposed to comply with on a voluntary basis.

Dale Kunkel, a communication professor at the University of Arizona and a member of a panel at the National Academies' Institute of Medicine that studied food marketing to children, said that if the industry cannot regulate itself, Congress might have to impose standards on Internet marketing.

Food companies use other techniques to enhance and sustain children's interest, according to Elizabeth Moore, an associate marketing professor at Notre Dame who conducted the study for the Kaiser Foundation. By encouraging children to become Web site members, for example, advertisers create a sort of affinity, giving Web surfers a customized experience. She said some features require parental permission. "When you get on the Internet, by definition, it's an interactive process," Moore said. "It's a series of decisions and actions."

 
 

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