The Interactive Indulgence: The Use of Advergames to Curb Childhood Obesity

By Shannon King
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/3 |

The Persuasive Advergaming Environment

Due to their fun and interactive nature, many child-targeted food companies are featuring advergames on websites to increase exposure and positive associations with their brand (Harris et al., 2011). Several studies have revealed that children are willing consumers of these interactive marketing efforts, as gaming is one of the most popular online activities of children and youth (Rideout et al., 2010). In spot advertising through traditional channels like television or print media, children are passive in their exposure to brand placement. With branded entertainment, however, children receive a fundamentally different experience. Advergames, which are designed to be amusing and engaging, demand focused attention from the player, and children are active seekers in their interactions with the content (Wise et al., 2010). They are engaging with the brand. A content analysis of four popular children's websites revealed that advergames utilized branded characters and other attention-getting features like animation, colorful text, and dynamic images to appeal to children (Alvy & Calvert, 2008). Various studies have found that production features like these encourage children to return to the website and to play the advergame multiple times, therefore maximizing the players' interactions with the promoted brand (Harris et al., 2011).

Research demonstrates that children are taking the bait. A study examined children's exposure to U.S. food company websites featuring advergames and found that 1.2 million children visit these sites every month, spending as much as one hour per month on some sites. The study also found that children were 77% more likely to visit websites featuring advergames and spent 88% more time on these sites than other pages (Harris et al., 2011). Many food companies recognize the tremendous marketing opportunity of advergames to children and have readily adopted this interactive media strategy, as approximately 80% of U.S. food websites promoted on children's television networks include advergames (Culp, Bell, & Cassady, 2010). A content analysis of major food advertisers' websites found that 90% of the promoted brands were of poor nutritional quality, containing high levels of fat, sodium, and sugars that are unhealthy for children (Moore & Rideout, 2007). Other studies have confirmed that the most commonly promoted products within advergames are candy, cereals, and fast food (Koplan, Liverman, & Kraak, 2005).

The power of play has proven to be highly effective in persuading children to visit certain websites, but researchers recently began investigating the impact of such food-related advergames on children. Some researchers argue that advergames may be more effective than television advertising because of their unique combination of commercial and noncommercial content packaged in an entertaining format. This blend makes it difficult for children to identify the advergame's origin and web promotion (Mallinckrodt & Mizerski, 2007; Moore & Rideout, 2007). Other research suggests that children are more easily influenced by interactive gaming content and advertising messages because of their lack of developed cognitive and reasoning abilities (Cicchirillo & Lin, 2011). Failure to understand the persuasive intent of advergames can cause unhealthy eating behaviors in children. Harris et al. (2011) examined the effects of playing advergames on children's food consumption and found that, like television advertising, advergames have the potential to negatively affect snack food consumption. Children who played advergames promoting unhealthy foods consumed 56% more unhealthy snack foods and consumed one-third fewer fruits and vegetables than children who played the control and healthy games. The study argues that such advergames may contribute to an increase in unhealthy food consumption and high caloric intake in children, which is a behavior that can lead to obesity (Harris et al., 2011).

Additional studies have yielded similar results. Participants in research completed in 2010 were offered a snack after playing food advergames. Of the total participants, 65% selected the brand promoted in the advergame, demonstrating that advergames have the potential to influence players' food preference (Hernandez & Chapa, 2010). Mallinckrodt & Mizerski (2007) examined branding effects of food advergames on children aged 7-8, who played a Froot Loops cereal advergame. Results revealed that children who played the advergame reported higher preferences for Froot Loops over other cereals as compared to the children who played a different game. Interestingly, the study also found that the children who played the Froot Loops advergame did not demonstrate a higher intent to request the brand from their parents (Mallinckrodt & Mizerski, 2007).

A Source of Concern for Health Professionals

In response to the evidence that food-branded advergames "may contribute to increased consumption of nutritionally poor foods in children, which over time can lead to obesity," many health advocates and public health researchers have expressed concern and discussed restrictions on companies' use of advergames to market unhealthy foods to children (Harris et al., 2011, p.3). Harris et al. (2011) examined the exposure and impact of advergames on children and recognized the efforts of the CFBAI and the improvements made by the participating companies; however, the study cited two noteworthy limitations in the companies' self-regulatory pledges. First, the CFBAI only sets nutrition criteria for foods advertised to children younger than the age of 12, which is typically defined as advertising that appears in the media with a child audience composition of 35% or higher (Harris et al., 2011; Peeler, Kolish, Enright, & Burke, 2010). This definition is inapplicable to Internet marketing, as audience compositions are lower for even obvious child-targeted websites. Therefore, participating companies are able to market to children, while still meeting the terms of their CFBAI company pledges (Harris et al., 2011). The second limitation regards the CFBAI's permission for participating companies to market "better-for-you foods" as long as their nutritional criteria matches the government guidelines and recommendations (Harris et al., 2011; Peeler et al., 2010). Research revealed that promoting somewhat less unhealthy foods through advergames still increases unhealthy snacking and induces negative eating habits among children (Harris et al., 2011).

Other researchers suggest that marketing organizations recognize food-related advergaming as a controversial topic and to "tread these waters with caution and engage advergames with the mindset of ethical consideration for the viewer" (Cicchirillo & Lin, 2011, p. 495). Additional managerial implications for ethical practices include advertising literacy education programs to help children understand the persuasive nature of ads and the addition of direct links to nutritional sites within the company's advergames (Cicchirillo & Lin, 2011).

Advergaming and Childhood Obesity Prevention

Despite the abundance of research that highlights their negative effects on children's unhealthy food consumption, advergames are not all bad. There has been some discussion among scholars and health practitioners regarding the use of interactive media for childhood obesity prevention. Research on the effects of healthy advergames reveals an encouraging possibility for health advocates. In one study, children who played video games with goal-setting, interactive content consumed more fruits and vegetables than children who played nutritional, knowledge-based games on popular websites (Baranowski, Baranowski, thompson, Buday & Jago, 2011). In another study, children who played advergames that promoted fruit and vegetable consumption ate 50% more healthy food compared to the children who played unhealthy advergames, suggesting that healthy advergames have the potential to improve children's eating behaviors (Harris et al., 2011).

In an effort to reduce childhood obesity, the Children's Nutrition Research Center of Baylor College of Medicine collaborated with design firm Archimage to develop a series of behavioral intervention projects, specifically designed to merge behavioral theories with interactive media content (Lu et al., 2010). Numerous health-based, interactive videogames have been developed and yielded successful results, offering guaranteed effectiveness (Lu et al., 2010). While promising strides have been made in this area of research, there are many opportunities for further explorations into interactive media as a tool in the fight against childhood obesity (Lu et al., 2010).

Theoretical Implications for Children's Processing of Advergames

In examining the persuasive power of advergames, many researchers offer various models and theories to provide insight into how children process such interactive, branded entertainment. The cognitive capacities of children are limited to early developmental stages; therefore, their ability to process large amounts of simultaneous information is hindered (Cicchirillo & Lin, 2011). Employing the elaboration likelihood model, some researchers argue that children process advergames peripherally, based on simple associations and cues (Moore & Rideout, 2007). Thus, children may center their attention on simple aspects of the advergame like branded characters, colorful animation, and stimulating music, which, in turn, impacts their perceptions and attitude towards the brand (Moore & Rideout, 2007). Other researchers suggest behavioral and learning theories, such as the Social Cognitive Theory, to provide insight into how advergames influence children's attitudes and responses (Cicchirillo & Lin, 2011).

Little research has examined the narrative discourse of advergames and its persuasive effects on children's food preferences and attitudes towards the brand. Thomson (2010) analyzed the marketing stories associated with advergames on two child-targeted websites; however, the research lacked focus on the narrative elements within the advergames.

The Narrative Paradigm

Application of Fisher's Narrative Paradigm offers a different look at the persuasive power of advergames. The Narrative Paradigm emphasizes the effectiveness of influence through narration (Fisher, 1984; Fisher, 1987). Proposing that human beings are fundamentally storytelling creatures, Fisher argues that the most persuasive and influential message is not based on rational decision-making and sound arguments. Instead, persuasion is accomplished through an emotional process based on narrative storytelling. If a narrative is engaging, truthful, and congruent with an audience's experiences, then it can convince them of good reasons to engage in a particular action or belief (Fisher, 1984). The Narrative Paradigm includes five assumptions: 1) Human beings are storytellers; 2) narrative rationality relies on good reasons as the basis for most decision-making; 3) reasoning is determined by an individual's unique perspective; 4) rationality is based on an individual's awareness and consistency of a narrative as compared to other experiences; and 5) individuals create and recreate reality through a selection of narratives (Fisher, 1984; Fisher, 1987). Importantly, Fisher emphasizes that the most influential narratives must be both convincing and appealing to the emotions and experiences of an audience to achieve persuasion (Fisher, 1984). The Narrative Paradigm serves as a theoretical base for this research, as narrative persuasion offers new analysis of the influential power of advergames on children.

Although a considerable amount of research exists regarding the nature of food-related advergaming, there is a lack of research in building a theoretical foundation for understanding the current role and future potential of advergaming as a strategy in the long-term fight against childhood obesity. This research is intended to fill the gap in previous research and to create a platform of discussion among advertisers and pro-health advocates on the topic of advergaming and its impact on children's behaviors and food preferences. Specifically, this study sought to answer the following questions:

  • RQ1: In what ways can childhood obesity campaigns and other pro-health initiatives use interactive media as an effective strategy in changing food habits and behaviors in children?
  • RQ2: What makes branded entertainment like advergames successful for an advertising campaign?
  • RQ3: Are interactive media tools like advergames a sustainable strategy for advertising campaigns?

This study is unique in that it seeks to understand the strategy behind advergames from the point-ofview of interactive media agency professionals. Their expertise and experience with branded entertainment provide a credible and interesting perspective on the current role and future potential of advergames. This research is important because it provides a breakdown of the use of advergames from an agency standpoint, which could foster discussion and education for pro-health advocates looking to implement interactive media in childhood obesity prevention campaigns.

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