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.