How do you get little Bobby to ask his Mom for a double cheeseburger? Have him play a free online game. Advergames are now the latest avenue for Junk Food Makers to advertise to young children. The latest research found that free children online games promoted food products that tended to be high fat and sugary products
What are advergames? Simply, they are video games that features an advertisement for a product, service, or company. Companies use them to target a specific demographic and reinforce their branding. Researchers looked at 143 of the advertised websites marketing foods to children and found most of the emphasis was on high fat, sugar laden products.
Children today are technologically savvy. On the packaging of popular food items, the children can find the web address and quickly get on to play the free games. Games vary for each product. One “cereal maker” has the product hero featured in an online comic book game. Another beverage maker has a game called “swap the sweets” where the user makes sets of 3s with pictures of candy, cupcakes, and other treats.
Advergames have been a around for a few years but they are quickly gaining popularity. It is growing because they are effective. Public health officials are concerned about advertising the high fat, high sugar fare as they are trying to decrease child obesity rates. According the the Center for Disease Control (CDC), obesity affects 17% of US children and teens. This number is triple the rate of generations ago.
Children Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI)
The food industry is trying to take steps to market responsibly. CFBAI is an initiative that is designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 years to promote healthier diet and lifestyle choices. Many large companies, such as Kraft Foods, Burger King, Coca-cola, and McDonalds, have volunteered to participate in this self regulation program. Despite this pledge, many of the ads researched do not meet nutrition standards.
In relation to advergames, the CFBAI policy is for “participants to commit that in any interactive game provided free or at a nominal charge primarily directed to children under 12 where the company’s food or beverage are incorporated into the game, the interactive game will incorporate or be accompanied by healthy dietary choices or better for you products.”
Michigan State University put together a team, lead by Lorraine Weatherspoon, to evaluate featured foods based on criteria from Department of Agriculture, US Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Medicine, and the Center for Science in Public Interest. For each featured food, they studied the serving size, calories, and nutrients.
Foods in Advertgames are Nutritionally Poor
According to study researcher Lorraine Weatherspoon, associate Professor of food and science nutrition and the director of the didactic program in dietetics at Michigan State University, the featured foods on the advergames tended to be low in multiple nutrients and vitamins and high in calories, sugar, and fat.
When Weatherspoon’s team looked more closely they found the advergames specifically targeted children and the large proportion of foods was junk food. Few companies promoted foods that were high in vitamins and nutrients such as fruits and vegetables.
According to the study, the sites advertised 254 meals, 101 snacks and 84 beverages. 95% of the advertised meals and 78% of the snacks did not meet government guidelines for total fat. Moreover, only 3% of the food met the criteria for added sugar.
The biggest goal for the research team is to make parents more aware of the ads being shown to their children and the impact these ads could have on their child’s eating habits.
Weatherspoon and her associates concluded that there should be more regulation and more consistency with the policies. She refocuses back to the parents and advises them not only to supervise what games their children are playing but to also reach out to the companies, and insists they promote healthier food options and choices.