Report: Web Gaming Industry Targeting Kids With Food Messages

Seeking to help quantify the Web’s impact on the problem of childhood obesity, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) said in a report issued Wednesday that many top food producers are using the Web to target children with powerful brand messages.

In a report titled “It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children,” KFF found 85 percent of the top food advertisers on TV were also using branded Web sites, often boasting interactive children’s games and other features, to reach young consumers.

Time to Graze

The foundation said it is concerned because unlike 30-second TV spots, the sites offer “extensive opportunities for visitors to spend an unlimited amount of time interacting with specific food brands in more personal and detailed ways.”

Of particular concern is the use of “advergames,” found on more than 70 percent of the Web sites it examined, and various viral marketing techniques.

“Online advertising’s reach isn’t as broad as that of television, but it’s much deeper,” said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, and the person who ran the research study. “Without good information about what this new world of advertising really looks like, there can’t be effective oversight or policymaking, whether by the industry or by government.”

Whether the report is enough to spur legislation or regulatory action is unclear, but it does emphasize that the Web may be coming under increasing scrutiny for its role in spreading marketing messages that are deemed potentially harmful.

Advergames in Spotlight

KFF said the 77 sites it examined drew some 12.2 million visits from the youngest class of Web users — those between 2 and 11 years old — during the second quarter of 2005 alone. Some sites had up to 60 interactive games and all told, some 546 advergames were found online, most involving characters interacting with high-sugar food products, such as cookies, candy and sugared cereals.

The kid-focused sites also used viral marketing heavily, the study found, with two-thirds of sites encouraging visitors to e-mail friends with links to the sites or games, and some offering bonuses to those who e-mailed multiple friends.

KFF also found that more than half of the sites it looked at offered clips of TV ads for viewing. About a quarter of sites offered some information on healthy eating or other nutritional or health topics.

The report also found extensive efforts to gain demographic information to enable additional marketing to take place, with many sites enabling children to sign up for memberships without parental permission.

What Next?

Health officials have been raising alarms for some time about the problem of childhood obesity in the U.S., with an estimated 25 million kids under the age of 18 either overweight or at high risk for becoming overweight or obese.

That in turn is seen causing a rash of secondary health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, which had previously been confined mainly to adults, and overall shorter life expectancy.

Several consumer groups have formed to take on the food industry, claiming that companies are being overly aggressive in their marketing to young people, and calling for a crackdown from regulators on what claims can be made about the nutritional value of some foods.

The food industry and the Association of National Advertisers have been working on guidelines for advertising to children, and say that government restrictions aren’t necessary or appropriate.

Still, the report could well bring additional scrutiny onto Web sites, which are increasingly being viewed as a powerful avenue for marketing to young people, with major media companies investing heavily in sites such as Neopets.com and other sites aimed at pre-teens.

“Media companies are turning to the Web because the 30-second TV spot is losing its punch,” Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s also been seen as offering a lot more latitude for advertisers. This sends a message that people are watching how Web sites target certain audiences. In the past, the TV ads got all the negative attention for these types of impacts — that’s changing.”

Meanwhile, advertisers and technology firms are developing better ways to build advertising messages into interactive games aimed at slightly older players, such as through product placement.

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