Advergames Show Why the Government Needs to Stand Up to the Food Industry

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 9 2013 10:10 AM

Advergames Show Why the Government Needs to Stand Up to the Food Industry

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The danger zone

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages

A typical snack food commercial on television lasts 30 seconds. It’s a flash of color, cartoon animation, and screeching noises—and then it’s gone. But food companies are increasingly turning to another form of marketing called “advergames” to push their wares.

Exactly as their name suggests, advergames combine advertising and addictive video games in a way that ensure kids bathe in product spots for as long as they click on the keyboard or smartphone. That might mean anything from popup ads unrelated to the action to whole experiences built around branded characters. Recently, Chipotle got a lot of attention for their Scarecrow commercial and its accompanying game/app, but examples are as numerous as your options for breakfast cereal. Sticking just to that aisle, there’s “Ice Block” from Fruit Loops, “Cap’n Crunch’s Crunchling Adventure,” and “Cookie Crisp City.” 

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Recently, researchers at Michigan State University analyzed more than 100 advergames to see whether any patterns emerged about the products being advertised. After looking at 145 different websites, the researchers identified 439 products from 19 brands. They then analyzed the nutritional contents of each of these products to see how they measured up against health recommendations for children.

Of the products advertised, approximately 95 percent of the meals and 78 percent of the snacks exceeded total fat content recommendations set by the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For sodium, 95 – 97 percent of the meals and 41 percent to 64 percent of the snacks failed to meet guidelines (depending on whether you’re using the USDA or FDA’s recommendations). And when it came to added sugar, 86.6 percent of meals and 97 percent of snacks exceed the USDA recommendations. (The FDA doesn’t make a recommendation for added sugar.)

In other words, advergames offer up a smorgasbord of crap. Probably not the most shocking thing you’ve read today, but the findings shed light on yet another way advertisers are skewing our kids’ thoughts about diet.

There’s also some crazy powerful lobbying at work. In 2009, a number of government organizations were tasked with defining nutrition principles for foods marketed to children. It was aptly named the Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children, and it has failed repeatedly to stand up to the food industry. In fact, right now its official recommendation is for the industry to regulate itself.

Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, one of the papers lead authors, says this was an interesting secondary takeaway from the research. “The fact that the agencies were not able to get together with one standard, and that it’s still up to the industry to self regulate is continuing to create this confusing environment where a lot of the messages getting through to kids may not be the ones that parents would want them to receive.”

Clearly, advergames aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, though a little bit of regulation could go a long way. Other research in the field has shown that when advergames promote nutritious foods, kids make healthier food choices. Quilliam and her colleagues are also working on another study using an advergame they built to test how age factors into the equation.

Sadly, I can personally attest to the advergame’s effectiveness. Back in high school, my friends and I used to stay up late out-putting each other on Candystand.com’s miniature golf game and talking to girls on AOL Instant Messenger. Each hole was sponsored by a different piece of junk, from Oreos to Lifesavers—and I’m here to tell you, I still crave Creme Savers when I think of Hole 16.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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