Children are an advertiser’s dream, and if you have any doubt about that, just take a stroll through a toy store or your local grocer’s with one of these trusting, impressionable tykes in tow. You’ll know what I mean.
As if the ads on TV for the latest toy, fast food, sugary snacks and fat-laden meals weren’t bad enough, now researchers say you have to worry about another insidious way that manufacturers are appealing to the youngest among us — advergames.
That’s the term for the enticing and engaging online games that food makers are increasingly supplying on their web sites as a way to introduce children to their products. The companies’ logos and goods are unavoidable on these games, which also include inducements to buy the products in order to launch new features on the game.
Researchers led by Jennifer Harris, director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University found that children are increasingly accessing these advergames, and, more importantly, falling under their spell. In one of the two studies that the group published in the Journal of Children and Media, the scientists documented the number of children who visited company web sites that included advergames, and how long the youngsters stayed on the sites. The kid-friendly games included puzzles, arcade-like games, as well as avatars and drawing features in which children used candy to “paint.” The researchers started with companies who voluntarily pledged to tailor advertising toward healthier foods for kids under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. About 38% of the companies had created advergames, and children made up a larger proportion of these advergame-supported sites than sites from similar companies without the games. About 1.2 million youngsters visit company sites with advergames every month, and spend up to an hour each month playing the games. Children were 77% more likely to visit pages with advergames than other sites, and spent 88% more time on these sites than on other pages.
VIDEO: How food companies disguise kid-focused marketing as online games
In the second part of the study, Harris and her colleagues chose two advergames featuring unhealthy foods, two featuring healthy foods, and two control games that didn’t include advertising for any products. They then asked 152 children aged seven to 12 years to randomly play two games, which were randomly assigned to them, with a snack break in between. The snacks included healthy grapes and carrots, as well as less healthy crackers, fruit snacks, cookies and chips. While they ate, the researchers recorded what they consumed. After eating, the children were asked to rate how much they liked the food and how healthy it was.
The children who played the healthy advergames designed by Dole ate as much of the unhealthy foods as the youngsters who played the unhealthy advergames, but they also ate 50% more grapes and carrots than the unhealthy game players. It was almost as if they were remembering the lessons from the games and thought they should eat the healthy foods too, says Harris.
The children playing the unhealthy advergames for PopTarts and Oreos, however, ate 56% more unhealthy snacks compared to those playing the healthy games, and 16% more compared to those in the control group. These youngsters also ate less fruits and vegetables than children playing either the healthy or control games. That implies that the advertising in the games was influencing the children to chose the unhealthy snacks while rejecting the healthier ones, says Harris.
The findings reinforce a growing body of evidence suggesting that children’s eating preferences are heavily influenced by what they see and hear around them, including advertising and the use of appealing cartoon characters. The CFBAI was created to motivate manufacturers to shift their advertising for children away from sugary, salty and fat-laden snacks, but, say experts that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not in a demonstrable way. Even more disturbing was the fact that some parents weren’t aware of how their children were being influenced by advergames. One third of the parents in the study didn’t know whether their children visited company websites to play advergames. “It’s not something currently on parents’ radar screens, but it should be,” says Harris.
That’s especially true since some advergames, such as the ones for healthy foods, can actually get kids to eat better. The message seems to be sinking in — but parents, and food makers, just need to be sure it’s the right one.
Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.