by Renata Smith, MPH

Exposure to media and advertising has been linked to consumption of low-nutrient foods in children. The bulk of food advertising is for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, such as sugary cereals, fast foods, candy, and soda. Traditional methods of advertising include television commercials, popular character licensing, and athlete endorsements. As technology advances, “new media” advertising on social media, mobile devices, and the Internet has also evolved. If you use Facebook, you may have noticed “sponsored posts” that now show up in your newsfeed (as a runner, I see targeted ads from race organizers, gear companies, etc., for example).

Targeting media savvy kids

While TV commercials has been the dominant method of food advertising, in 2012 the Federal Trade Commission reported a 50% increase ($46M) in marketing expenditures for “new media,” which includes websites, social media, and mobile devices. Of the top 10 websites visited by children, 70% market candy, cereal, and other low-nutrient/high calorie foods. Four major websites visited by children – including Nick.com and CartoonNetwork – account for 83% of all Internet food ads seen by children. Company websites also host advergames for kids: branded online video games that engage children for extended periods of time to promote a product. For example, McDonald’s uses smiling cartoon images of their Happy Meals characters to entice kids on to their “Games” site, where children can pick from numerous games, e-books, or videos to watch for hours. In 2009, 1.2 million children aged 6-11 years visited food company sponsored advergame websites each month. Food companies are also utilizing mobile apps to reach children, especially teens and pre-teens. As I mentioned in a prior post, however, even children as young as 4 are using mobile apps on their parents’ phones, suggesting that our kids may be well-primed before they even reach kindergarten.

Opportunities to increase healthy behaviors via advergames

While many companies are using advergames to market high-density foods, why not also leverage their potential to promote healthy food? A study by JL Harris found that children who played advergames with healthy foods consumed 50% more healthy fruit or vegetables compared to children who played advergames that promoted unhealthy foods. At the time of their study in 2011, only 3% of all advergames included information about nutrition and health. There could be significant untapped opportunity here to increase children’s healthy food consumption. However, increasing healthy food in a child’s diet does not necessarily displace unhealthy food. If advergames are developed to promote healthy food, therefore, we must simultaneously try to suppress the amount of time children spend playing “unhealthy” advergames. Despite the huge sum of money spent on advergames, parents can stem the tide of food marketing by monitoring their young children’s Internet time and directing children away from unhealthy food advergames.


Deborah Parker
05/18/2015 4:34am

Your blog ‘Child’s Play: Using Advergames to Change Behaviours’ focuses on the child but what about changing the behaviour of society as a whole? You have raised the issue of parents directing children away from unhealthy food that Advergames promote but, unless parents are aware of Advergames and the potential harm they can cause, this is not a reasonable expectation. A question to ask ourselves is whether the wider society, such as schools and government agencies should be educating and empowering the public about this type of advertising and what the healthy alternatives are. We hear about the potential dangers of the internet and the importance of staying safe online, but not about how advertising can be harmful to young children and the importance of keeping them safe from advertisers.

I agree “new media” marketing is only going to increase and I can understand why it is essential for companies to tap into this resource to get their product across. From my own personal experience I have noticed how my children no longer watch morning or afternoon television but crave time spent online.

TV advertising has regulations in place to help protect young viewers but as you stated more companies are choosing to use online media to promote their product as it has so many grey areas that marketers are able to take advantage of these loop holes and push the boundaries i.e. no time limit on exposure to advertisements. Online also has the added advantage of being so easily accessible to young viewers anytime day or night.

Tom L Beachamp (1984) talks about advertising as a form of manipulation as it bypass our rational judgment by appealing to our emotions or appetites. This is very much the case with marketing to children as low nutrient food is often marketed with free toys, promotional characters or celebrities, competitions and games which engage the child and appeal to their emotions as they associate this with enjoyment.

Advergames could then be seen as a form of deception as it is specifically targeted towards children who may not recognise the difference between a game and that of an advertisement. In a report commission by the Family & Parenting Institute in the UK found that children as old as 15 did not recognise that Advergames were a form of advertising (Narin & Harting, 2012). One reason is that a child’s brain has not developed the media literacy skills required to deal with recognising this, and, as you mentioned, the extended periods of time engaged with Advergames. This combination could influence a child’s subconscious at an emotional level, which can affect a child’s behaviour without the child even being aware of it. This is known as the “mere exposure effect” (process of association) which can result in the child preferring that brand.

This is why advertising is considered ‘unfair’, especially Advergames, unless a child can recognise this adverting they are vulnerable to the bombardment of marketing online. Yes freedom of commercial speech is essential for giving us choice but when the message is misleading or deceptive this is when protection/restrictions must be put in place as it threatens the child’s autonomous rationalising decision making.

We should then argue the case, is this sort of marketing to children ethical? Are the businesses respecting the rights of children? Shouldn’t businesses be taking on some corporate responsibility by asking the big question of what are the impacts of their advertising? Is it harmful?

Milton Friedman (1970) argues that the main role of business is to increase its profit while remaining within the law and engaging in free and open competition without deception or fraud. For example, Advergames promote low-nutrient foods, you could argue that it’s deceptive, but it is still within the law. The product being promoted is sold for the purpose of providing its shareholders with a dividend. Friedman believes then it is up to the shareholder, not the company, whether to support worthy causes with the profits rather than the company trying to apply a moral code which may not represent the wider society, or conflict with its shareholders’ beliefs. On the other hand, Freeman’s Stakeholder Theory (Freeman, 2004) refers to the responsibility of businesses, that’s it not all about maximising profits but taking into account the views of the wider society, and including these views in their decision making. The argument is that for businesses to continue to exist and grow they need to cater to all their stakeholders, including meeting their duties and responsibility to society as a whole i.e. by questioning what outcome their product or marketing might be having on society.

This is why once parents have been informed on the effects of advertising they can join together with government agencies to put pressure on companies to change t


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