Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Playing with Food: Content Analysis of Food Advergames

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Playing with Food: Content Analysis of Food Advergames

Article excerpt

This study examines how food marketers use advergames, custom-built and branded online games, to promote food products to children and provides the nutritional content of the food products featured in the advergames. The results reveal that food marketers use advergames heavily, with candy and gum or food products high in sugar most frequently appearing in the analyzed games. Children are often invited to "play with" the foods integrated as active game components. Finally, despite the educational benefits of interactive games, fewer than 3% of the games analyzed in this study appear to educate children about nutritional and health issues.

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I am deeply concerned about the current unhealthy trend toward poor nutrition and childhood obesity, which the Institute of Medicine has linked to the prevalence of television advertisements for fast food, junk food, sugared cereals, and other foods wholly lacking in nutritional value. If this trend continues, our children could be the first in generations to enjoy shorter life expectancies than their parents (U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey 2007).

The food, beverage, and restaurant industries spend $1.6 billion annually to promote their products to children and adolescents, with overall marketing expenditures for those brands of nearly $10 billion (FFC 2008b; Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006). Concurrently, over the past two decades, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in childhood obesity. According to the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 17% of U.S. children and adolescents aged two to nineteen years are overweight (National Center for Health Statistics 2007). Overweight children have an 80% likelihood of remaining overweight into adulthood, with a higher rate of morbidity and mortality (American Obesity Association n.d.). Researchers and policy makers are currently debating the role of food advertising in the childhood obesity epidemic (Hastings et al. 2003; Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006).

Accompanying the rise in childhood obesity and the proliferation of food marketing activities targeted at children are public concerns about the effects of such marketing on children's health. Food marketers have answered these concerns with several efforts. Kellogg Company, for example, decided not to advertise low-nutrient foods on television and other media aimed at children younger than age twelve (Teinowitz 2007). In a statement released in response to the Kellogg decision (see above), Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), the chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, gave public voice to concerns about the potential influence of children's advertising on childhood obesity (Markey 2007).

The concerns about the relationship between food advertising and childhood obesity are based on the assumption that children, unlike adults, are unable to comprehend the concept and persuasive intent of advertising. Researchers have found that children learn to distinguish programming (e.g., cartoons) from advertisements on television at around age four or five (John 1999; Wilcox et al. 2004), but it is not until age twelve or later when children are said to develop the capability to defend themselves against advertisers' claims (John 1999). Given this vulnerability to advertising, frequent exposure to television ads for nutritionally poor food products has the potential to influence children's poor eating habits.

Children are now exposed to food advertising through new online techniques. Among the most interactive of these new tactics aimed specifically at children is the advergame, a custom-built online game designed to promote a company's brand (Chester and Montgomery 2007; Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007; Moore and Rideout 2007; Weber, Story, and Harnack 2006). According to the 2007 American Kids Study conducted by Mediamark Research & Intelligence (2007), a majority (78. …

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