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Are Advergames Fair Game for Kids?

Posted by Sheila Shayon on June 2, 2011 04:00 PM

Chex Quest, from General Mills, was the first video game to ever be included in cereal boxes as a prize back in 1996. Fast forward 15 years to Create a Comic, General Mills' latest digital advergame designed to engage kids with the Honey Nut Cheerios cereal brand. 

In that brief span of 15 years, the playbook on marketing to children has been rewritten by all things digital, and marketers are increasingly using games, quizzes and mobile apps to woo kids into a social web where they essentially act as marketers themselves.

In the case of Create a Comic, kids create comic strips using the Honey Nuts brand mascot, which they share on a gallery to be voted on — the kid-created comic above has almost 22,000 'likes.'

“Food marketers have tried to reach children since the age of the carnival barker, but they’ve never had so much access to them and never been able to bypass parents so successfully,” Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School told the New York Times.

Linn's organization, as you might guess, opposes the "adver" part of "advergaming." In the Honey Nut Cheerios game example, there's an icon to warn kids that they're engaging with an ad ("Hey kids, this is advertising") but it's so small it's easily missed.

Everybody agrees that children are low-hanging fruit when it comes to marketing — easy pickings not only for their susceptibility to spurious engagement, but the fact that, by nudging their parents, they wield purchasing influence of $100 billion in annual food and beverage sales according to James McNeal, a former marketing professor at Texas A&M University.

Susannah Stern, associate professor at the University of San Diego, recently co-authored a study. Its conclusion: slim banners in online games “do not raise awareness of who put the game up or why they put the game up.” 

The study tested reactions of fourth-graders playing two versions of a game called “Be a Popstar” from Post Foods that centers on Honeycomb cereal. The game was part of Postopia.com, which featured dozens of free games until December, when it redirected to the Flintstones cereal-themed PebblesPlay.com.

One version included ad labels while the other had them removed. “The children were more likely to believe that the site was trying to turn them into a pop star than that it was trying to make them want to eat Honeycomb cereal…Even children who identified the cereal company or brand as the site’s sponsor tended not to recognize that it was intended to sell cereal.”

Advergaming, of course, is nothing new. BrandGames began marketing branded games in 1995.  "Early on, we developed the idea that custom videogames featuring integrated brand messages do double duty — as promotional incentives that drive sales and as media that deliver hours of brand-building awareness,” according to BrandGames' EVP Marketing, Jim Wexler.

Cereal box prizes seem remarkably benign when compared to the sophistication of advergames in the digital era. 

“We are just seeing the beginning of it,” says Kathryn Montgomery, communications professor at American University in the New York Times article. “Food marketing is really now woven into the very fabric of young people’s daily experiences and their social relationships.”

For many parents and childrens' advocates, the most important message when it comes to branded advergaming may be the reminder (to go and play outside) that pops up during the Honey Nut Cheerios Create a Comic game.


Anthony Giallourakis United States says:

This has to be the 100th article derived from a research project which depicts advergaming as the root of all evil with respect to advertising to children. While there are clearly parental issues with young kids playing too many games and there are obvious issues with how they react to those games and what consumer decisions are made as a result of this type of interactive marketing, the constant over badgering of this topic is suspect at best. At worst, it is both misinformation and misleading.

First, kids in 2th grade do not make meaningful product or service purchases, their parents do. If a child is playing a branded game (advergame) and they are persuaded to impress upon their parents the desire to try that product (food in this case), then it is up to the parent to decipher the origin of that request and to balance the child's desires with their own. The introduction of the advergame into the equation is not within itself a bad thing. When a parent(s) does not oversee the process of introduction, engagement, reaction, and ultimately the decision to purchase, then there is little anyone in the advergaming industry from the developers to the publishers, and even the sponsors themselves can do to change the eventual outcome. Kids will want things and they will ask for them. It continues to be the parents’ responsibility to gage what is good for their kids and how much of what they should have (including food).

If that wasn't enough, these studies and the numerous articles and papers which are derived from them are formulated within an unproblematic vacuum of sorts. In all the years I have read these kinds of "pop shot" fudding articles on advergaming (targeting younger players), not once has anyone bothered to mention what the alternatives are to playing them.

So a 5 year old plays an advergame promoting chicken nuggets, offered up by a global brand company with billions of dollars in sales and a huge reputation to protect. What are the chances that there is spyware in that game? Zero. What are the chances that some "Easter egg" inappropriate content that exposes itself to that kid while playing that advergame? Zero. What are the chances that the 5 year old is scared out of his wits or clicks on an in game advertisement and is sent to an inappropriate site? Zero again. In a sense, there may not be a safer place for a 5 year old to be, where fun games play is offered online.

Rather than constantly attacking advergaming targeting young kids who may or may not know it is indeed an advertising mechanism, perhaps parents and those who write about advergames should consider the more comprehensive picture. To not do so is both sophomoric in nature and short sighted with respect to the reality of the topic.

I have watched the evolution of the advergames market place for over 12 years very closely. I am pleased with the efforts by advergames sponsors to do what it takes to insure that no one is being "tricked" into allowing their kids to be brainwashed into becoming micro-CMO's for large brand players.

As a parent and an expert in the field of advergaming, I can state with a high level of confidence that advergames are good for kids and they bring more benefits to the consumer and their families than negatives. It seems the press and the research institutions have some catching up to do, because this kind of debate, constantly being approached from a negative perspective is getting very old and very tired.

June 2, 2011 05:59 PM #

P-R Babiak Canada says:

I guess I am one of those critical ("negative") voices, affiliated with a "research institutions", because my immediate response, upon reading the article, was 'hey, this piece shouldn't be called "Are Advergames Fair Game for Kids?" but rather "ARE KIDS FAIR GAME FOR ADVERGAMERS."

June 2, 2011 07:04 PM #

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