The online game is known as “ski launch,” and the objective is to make your player travel as far as possible on water skis. The player is a Pop Tart. Elsewhere on the Web, you are invited to play as the Honey Nut Cheerios mascot, becoming a “honey defender” and fighting goons in places such as Honey Falls and Hive City. Another online amusement, modelled on the highly addictive puzzle game Candy Crush Saga, presents an array of sweets and invites you to match them up. In place of a scoreboard is a bottle of Dr Pepper, which fills up as you make correct matches.
These Internet distractions are part of the new landscape of advertising to children.
As kids spend more and more time online, advertisers are following them there, mimicking the content children seek out themselves – games.
When it comes to food marketing, a prickly topic given the rise of childhood obesity, advertisers have made public commitments either not to target children or to only advertise healthy foods to them. But researchers at Michigan State University have found evidence that advertisers are not living up to that promise online.
Their study, recently published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, found that “advergames,” which attract children, often promote high-sugar or otherwise unhealthy foods.
“It’s a very different type of promotion than the commercials that children had been historically exposed to,” said Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, a professor with Michigan State’s department of advertising and public relations, and one of the study’s authors.
“While a television commercial might last for 30 seconds, a child could play an advergame for as long as he or she wants. And they’re actually interacting with the brands.”
The researchers used data from Comscore, which tracks Web traffic, to find food marketers’ websites that attract visits from children 2 to 11 years old. They found 143 websites advertising 439 food brands that did so.
Research assistants from the university’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition then evaluated the nutrition information provided on the package labels of each of those brands, using a variety of nutritional criteria from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Medicine, and the advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest. While the criteria from those groups varies, the researchers found that the branded games children are playing online were generally found to promote foods that were high in sugar, fat and/or salt.
For example, roughly 95 per cent of the meals and 78 per cent of the snacks promoted through these games exceeded USDA and FDA recommendations for total fat content. Sugar content was also an issue: 86.6 per cent of meals and 97 per cent of snacks advertised did not jibe with USDA recommendations for added sugar. Many of the foods were also found to have higher-than-recommended levels of salt.
This raises serious questions about the effectiveness of measures the industry has taken to curb food advertising targeted to children, especially in new media, where children who are still developing media literacy may not be as equipped as adults to distinguish an advertiser’s game from other play time online.
“That’s what makes advergames really different as a persuasion tactic,” Prof. Quilliam said. “On television, there’s a separation between content and advertising. But with these games, that line is completely blurred. The advertising is the entertainment.”
In both the United States and Canada, a “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative” has been developed for the industry, and the biggest food marketers have signed on, including Coca-Cola Co., Kellogg Co., Nestlé SA and others. The pledge to refrain from advertising certain food products to children is voluntary and self-regulatory, and marketers have so far been keeping their promises. There are also additional regulatory checks in Canada for television advertising to children.
“Kellogg has a long-standing commitment to responsibly market only those foods that meet strict nutrition criteria to children ages 6-12,” a spokesperson said in an e-mailed response to questions about the study, which looked at Kellogg’s games developed for Pop Tarts and Apple Jacks cereal. “Multiple studies have proven that people who start the day with cereal tend to weigh less and have improved nutrient intakes. Furthermore, a recent study found that children who start the day with cereal, regardless of sugar content, tend to weigh less than those who skip or choose other breakfasts.”
Last month, Advertising Standards Canada, which oversees the program here, released its fifth annual compliance report. Similar to the U.S. program, the Canadian initiative has advertisers promise “to either not direct advertising primarily to children under the age of 12, or to shift their advertising to products that are consistent with the principles of sound nutrition guidance.”
That compliance report noted that the initiative has expanded its definition of advertising to cover advertising in video games and on mobile phones. It found that in 2012, compliance continued to be excellent, including in the types of online games the research spoke about.
“Most of the interactive games that featured Participants’ products were found on company-owned child-directed websites. On these sites only better-for-you products that were included in that company’s commitment were featured,” the report stated.
The ASC’s compliance tracking and the study are not directly comparable, since the study looked at U.S. websites and the ASC tracks Canadian ones; the report includes a list of food marketers’ websites directed to children, and found that any games promoting products on those and other sites met the nutrition criteria.
However, the obvious problem is that the Internet has no borders: Those promotional games created by U.S. food companies (many of which are the same ones that have signed on to both the U.S. and Canadian self-regulatory initiatives) are freely accessible to children here. And some argue that stricter standards for what is considered “better for you” food, and to hold advertisers to account, are needed.
“The confusion in the area ultimately leads to the parents being the last line of defence,” Prof. Quilliam said.
WHAT ADVERTISERS HAVE PROMISED
Here are the specific commitments under the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
Promise: To “not direct advertising to children under 12 years of age”
Who’s signed: Coca-Cola, Ferrero, Hershey’s, Janes, Mars, McCain, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Weston Bakeries.
Promise: “Include only products meeting the nutrition criteria outlined in their individual commitments and approved by [Advertising Standards Canada] in child-directed advertising” and also “to devote 100 per cent of their television, radio, print, Internet, movie/DVD, video/computer game, and mobile media advertising directed primarily to children under 12 years of age to further the goal of promoting healthy dietary choices.”
Who's signed: Burger King (company-owned website only), Campbell Canada, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Canada, McDonald’s, Parmalat, Post.