food industry marketing kids cereal

A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, “It’s Child Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children,” is a comprehensive look at this new type of advertising. Haven’t heard of it? You will. According to the report, Price Waterhouse Coopers estimates a five-fold increase in spending on this type of advertising by 2009. Advergaming (a contraction of advertising and gaming) is the use of online video games with embedded brand messages to engage your target audience. It is specifically designed to blur the boundary between advertising and entertainment. This report looks at advergaming that targets kids.


Advergaming is a good deal for food marketers

Advergaming is a good deal for food marketers. It is cheap compared to TV advertising ($2 per thousand users compared with $7 to $30 per thousand viewers). Also, it can be tracked in a way TV ads cannot (number of visitors, time spent on the site, repeat visits and so forth). Sites with games hold the viewers’ attention much longer than 30 second or 60 second TV spots. Popsicle’s site,, for example, has structured games that encourage you to play again and again so that you can improve your skills and improve your score.

Some sites encourage you to sign in or sign up for access to additional features (e.g., Now, the marketers have an email address to use to send further brand-related messages. Others ask for a code to play some of the games or win some of the prizes (e.g., Where do you think you find the code? No surprise here….it’s on the package, of course. One site I visited,, a Campbell food sponsored site, asked visitors if they were hungry? Then, it counseled, “make a shopping list for Mom and Dad.” Here are some choices from the list that your child can check and print out (complete with photos of all of the listed products) to give to you:

  • Campbell’s Goldfish Pasta with Meatballs in Chicken Broth
  • Batman Pasta with Chicken in Chicken Broth (Batman pasta??)
  • Campbell’s Jimmy Neutron Pasta with Chicken in Chicken Broth
  • Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Sandwich Snackers

Yes, your child could check raisins, or carrots, or grapes. But when compared to Batman Pasta or Dora the Explorer Pasta in colorful cans with cartoon characters on them, what do you think your kid will pick?


Some research on the topic

The Kaiser Family Foundation sponsored research was led by Elizabeth S. Moore, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Notre Dame. She took a careful look at 96 brands, primarily snack or fast foods that are already advertised to children on television. She wanted to learn more about the current state of child-oriented advertising on food industry corporate websites. Here are some of her findings:

  • Eighty-five percent (85%) of the brands originally identified were found to have a website that either directly targets children or contains content that would be of interest to them.
  • Sites were quite varied. Some were simple with few activities or games, others were more complex and included membership opportunities as well as movie and television tie-ins.
  • Some sites focused on children as the target, others had features that could interest a more general audience as well.
  • Most (73%) focused on only one food brand.

The researchers used Nielsen/Net rating data for the second quarter of 2005 to determine audience size. There were an astounding 12.2 million visits by children ages 2-11 across the set of study websites during those three months. That would be close to 50 million visits annually. Clearly, these sites are attracting kids. Even though some sites asked for birthdays and parental permission if the date indicated the visitor is less than 13, there is still exposure to a significant amount of content that does not require parental consent.

This study was not designed to determine if these sites are effective at driving more sales. But I am sure industry believes, and probably has evidence, that they will. At a time when parents and health professionals are struggling to develop effective ways to address the epidemic of childhood obesity, it seems counterproductive, for society as a whole, to have increased consumption of high-calorie snack foods and beverages being driven by advergaming.

That’s my opinion. Take a look at some of these sites and tell me what you think?