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6 May 2014

The Truth About Food-Promoting Advergames

Keywords: CFBAI, advergames, advertising, food, games, health, self-regulation, North America, computer, content analysis, internet, kids,

With the rise of childhood obesity, interactive online food marketing tactics, such as advergames are not exactly warmly welcomed. Many health practitioners worry about the highly engaging digital techniques food companies use to promote their mostly unhealthy products. A study in Internet Research indeed shows that the nutritional quality of food promoted in advergames (that reach children under the age of 12) is very often unhealthy. Results also show that those games mostly lack age limits and healthy lifestyle info. However, ad breaks informing children about the included commercial info were frequently present in the games.

Take aways

  • Advergames played by children mostly lack:
    • healthy products;
    • age limits;
    • healthy lifestyle information. 
  • The vast majority of those advergames is sponsored by food companies that participate in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI; a voluntary self-regulation program that commits its members to the promotion of healthy dietary options and to the incorporation of healthy lifestyle messages into advergames aimed at children younger than 12). The results suggest that most of these participants do not really act on this commitment. 
  • Efforts should be made to look more critically at the engaging advergames food companies use to target children online. Especially because many of their promoted products are calorie dense and nutrient poor.

Study information

  • The question?

    The study addressed three questions:

    1. What’s the content of food advergames that reaches children under the age of 12?
    2. What’s the nutritional quality of the food promoted in those games? 
    3. To what extent are these games presented by CFBAI participants?  
  • Who?

    A total of 143 advergames that appeared on the websites of major food brands 

  • Where?

    United States

  • How?

    The researchers first counted the number of advergames that appeared on the websites of top-selling food companies. In addition they looked at the websites from the top five brands in 43 different food categories. They found a total of 143 different advergames offered by 19 brands. Of these games 44 included children (2-11 years of age) as unique visitors (this number was obtained via comScores’ web page-level audience measurement database). Advergames were analyzed on:

    • the presence of an age limit specification;
    • the presence of ad breaks (disclaimers communicating that the game content includes commercial information);
    • the presence of healthy lifestyle information (e.g.,“games are fun, but so is getting outside. How about taking a break?”);
    • the inclusion of any type of brand identifiers (brand logo, product, package, characters);
    • the inclusion of healthy (nutrient dense) and unhealthy products (calorie dense and nutrient poor);
    • the company’s participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

Facts and findings

  • Of the advergames that actually reached children almost 90% did not include any age limit specification (suggested or enforced by letting children enter their birthdate), and almost 50% did not include any healthy lifestyle information. By contrast, ad breaks to tell children the content included commercial info were present more often (71%) (see Figure 1). 
  • The advergames often included brand identifiers, such as logo’s (100%), products (61%), packages (34%), and characters (93%), indicating strong effort from food companies to integrate their brand into the games. 
  • Most foods the advergames promoted were classified as unhealthy (calorie dense and nutrient poor) according to different American nutrition guidelines (e.g., FDA, IOM, and CSPI) (see Figure 2). 
  • About 80% of the advergames that actually reached children (2-11 years of age) were sponsored by food companies that participated in the CFBAI.