From Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications VOL. 3 NO. 2
The Interactive Indulgence: The Use of Advergames to Curb Childhood Obesity
This study uses intensive interviews and secondary research to tackle research questions from various perspectives. Intensive interviews were conducted with three communications professionals who specialize in the interactive media and/or branded entertainment industry. The participants were selected based on their familiarity with the use of advergames. To provide a greater perspective on the topic of advergaming, the researcher interviewed professionals from agencies of different sizes and locations. One interviewee is employed by a full service e-consultancy, while the other two interviewees are employed by the same independent advertising agency. The sizes of the agencies range from 51 employees to 500 employees. Both agencies are privately held, and located within the United States. One interview was conducted via telephone, and the other two were conducted via email correspondence. All participants held top-level positions, with titles including Director of Creative, Interactive Production Coordinator, and Interactive Production Director. While the sample size is small, the qualitative techniques of in-depth interviews offer rich insight and textual data that is crucial to this are of study (Zhou & Sloan, 2009, p. 289). Each interview followed the same structure, based on 10 questions (see Appendix). Depending on the varying responses, other questions were sometimes asked to provide further depth or clarification on a particular topic. Interviewees were asked to articulate their experiences, knowledge, and opinions about the use of advergames in general.
IV. Findings and Analysis
The Persuasive Power of Advergames and their use in pro-health campaigns
Secondary research confirms that advergames promoting fruit and vegetable consumption have the potential to influence children's food preferences and snack consumption in a positive way, suggesting that advergames may serve as an effective educational tool to teach children about nutrition and physical activity (Harris et al., 2011). However, the vast amount of persuasive elements involved in advergaming makes it difficult to understand how exactly such interactive technology can persuade its audience to change eating habits and behaviors. The majority of research regarding the influential nature of advergames speaks to the entire package of an advergame (Alvy & Calvert, 2008). Vibrant and stimulating colors, influential branded characters, thrilling sound effects, dynamic animation, and embedded brand messaging are all wrapped up in an interactive gaming environment to effectively engage an audience.
From an agency standpoint, the primary function of advergames is to promote brand awareness and repeated play; therefore, the game is specifically designed with the total package in mind. The mixture of the game's engaging elements promotes repetitive play, persuading an audience to return to a site and interact with the branded message again and again. Interactive elements such as badges, high scores, multi-player scenarios, and online credits all play into the addictive and persuasive nature of advergames. One interviewee, the Director of Creative at a full service e-consultancy, said, "If an advergame pairs these elements with a known commodity like Mario & Luigi, Sonic the Hedgehog, Legos, Transformers, or Batman, then it is a home run strategy" (personal communication, April 24, 2012). Advergames also offer compelling game mechanics like competition, as seen in leader boards for multi-player scenarios or when beating one's own score, to appeal to an audience (personal communication, April 24, 2012). The Interactive Production Coordinator from an independent advertising agency further explained how the fun, unique content of advergames is attractive to an audience, especially children.
"It's the repetitive and addictive nature of a game that hooks kids. Just like we can recall a jingle in a heartbeat or sing a song from Sesame Street that we haven't heard for 20 years, if you do something often enough it becomes engrained. Games last longer than a 30 second jingle and are more engaging, so they're probably even more powerful in becoming a part of the user's mind" (personal communication, April 23, 2012).
In addition to the repetitive and addictive nature of advergaming, perhaps another way in which advergames influence its players is through the use of narrative persuasion. Although advergames are usually short in length and simple in design, the game offers a mini version of a narrative story through its animation and branded characters. Fisher's Narrative Paradigm points to the potentially powerful effects of storytelling, suggesting that narratives can convince an audience of good reasons to engage in a particular behavior (Fisher, 1984). Many narratives in association with advergaming position the promoted brand in a way that is essential and desirable to the player (Thomson, 2010). Because children are more likely to focus on the advergame itself rather than the advertising component, they are less skeptical and more receptive to the branded messaging (Moore & Rideout, 2007). Therefore, if a certain product holds high value in the virtual world of an advergame, then a child has good reasons to believe it has the same power in the real world (Fisher, 1984).
Based on the notion that persuasion is accomplished through an emotional response rather than a rational process, the Narrative Paradigm also offers a descriptive lens in explaining advergames' ability to influence brand preferences and attitudes among children. Positive experiences with an advergame can translate to positive feelings towards the brand (Hernandez & Chapa, 2010), as children utilize their emotions to shape their beliefs and actions (Fisher, 1984). Analyzing the various persuasive aspects of advergames can provide researchers and pro-health advocates with information and insight into ways to influence children's behavior within a fun and interactive context.
Depending on a client's specific goals for an advertising campaign (whether it is to promote a specific product or to educate and influence a behavior), there are numerous aspects in measuring advergaming success. From an agency standpoint, the advergame must be fun, engaging, and addictive in nature, which translates to extended playing time and repetitive play. This interaction time is also an indicator of a website's success, as the longer an individual remains on a site, the more he or she is exposed to a particular brand through various product placements (Alvy & Calvert, 2008). Email signups and social media interactions, including Likes, Follows, and Re-pins, are other indicators of positive results. A successful advergame is also viral, as the brand is shared and promoted among users, allowing for maximum exposure and extended interaction rates with the brand across all channels. In addition, the advergame should be interesting and memorable, encouraging an audience to play again and again, instead of something they will forget as soon as they close the window (personal communication, April 23, 2012).
In examining the use of advergames that encourage healthy lifestyle choices, some research suggests providing performance feedback as a way to improve children's self-efficacy (Cicchirillo & Lin, 2011).
Perhaps a major success of such advergames could be measured by each player's health improvements and long-term record with making healthy choices. The online environment of advergames is helpful in collecting consumer data and in analyzing campaign results. In order to effectively measure the quantitative success of an advergame, companies should track the game's various interactions: every click should be measured, every page view should be counted, and time interacting with the property should be accurately reported. Furthermore, the reported statistics should be provided to the client and compared with the client's specified definition of success for the campaign (personal communication, April 24, 2012).
According to agency professionals, the game should also correspond with what the promoted brand stands for and what the targeted audience expects. Although advergaming is a powerful tool in promoting brand messaging and building brand awareness, it is not necessarily applicable for every client. The use of advergaming is most effective for clients who target a demographic with high social involvement (personal communication, April 23, 2012). Children and youth are active agents of social involvement, as they spend more and more time online each year. Additionally, home Internet access has expanded from 74% to 84% in the last five years (Rideout et al., 2010). With the increase in online media use among children and youth, advergaming is an effective outlet in which pro-health advocates and other health professionals can promote their messages.
The Future of Advergames
Like all aspects of digital media, interactive media tools are likely to evolve. The technologies employed to implement these types of interactions will continue to change at a blistering rate. One interviewee, the Director of Creative at a full service e-consultancy, said, "With Flash essentially gone, the gaming platforms will move to native applications and Facebook practically exclusively. Desktop variations of advergaming may become viable, but the expense associated with these games may not be sustainable" (personal communication, April 24, 2012). Another interviewee, the Interactive Production Coordinator at an independent advertising agency, discussed another aspect of advergames that is likely to evolve: "The future for advergaming will be further development in seamlessly syncing real money with game money. The easier it is to spend within the game to get a real product, the better" (personal communication, April 23, 2012). Because the market is so saturated with constantly evolving technologies, the use of advergames for a campaign must not only be relevant to a brand's target audience, but it should also appeal to a wider audience (personal communication, April 23, 2012).
The changing media landscape might pose a challenge for interactive media tools; however, the persuasive power of advergames on players' brand perceptions and preferences is hard to dismiss. Therefore, the strategy behind advergames may prove to be sustainable in the long-term fight against childhood obesity. The influential nature and interactive components of interactive media tools, such as advergames, offer promising effectiveness (Lu, 2010). Additionally, children's Internet use is at an all-time high, as research suggests a continued increase in trends (Rideout et al., 2010). Research on the link between behavioral and cognitive theories and new media offers additional promise in sustainable efforts of interactive media for childhood obesity prevention (Lu et al., 2010).
Unless the brand is specifically in the gaming space, agency professionals suggested that the use of advergaming technology for an advertising campaign should complement traditional advertising, rounding out other multi-channel efforts that a client is leveraging (personal communication, April 23, 2012). Successful campaigns use both traditional and innovative advertising techniques to promote a brand. The use of advergames can drive users to traditional messages in order to engage them with the business, as interactive media tools like advergames generally play more of an experimental role for most clients, supplementing traditional ads, such as banners, print, and television (personal communication, April 24, 2012).
This study found that advergames can influence children's food habits and behaviors in various ways, including the use of branded characters, visual features, and repetition; however, it is the combination of all gaming components that makes advergaming so influential. Advertising professionals spoke to the addictive nature of the games, emphasizing that increased playing time translates to maximized exposure to the brand and its messages. Additional insight into the narrative persuasion of advergames was provided through the application of Fisher's Narrative Paradigm. Children, whose cognitive abilities are age limited, are impacted by the stories created through advergames, as they use good reasons and emotion-based logic to make decisions on brand preference and behavior (Fisher, 1984).
In addition, this study revealed the various aspects in measuring an advergame's success in an advertising campaign. Different clients demand different results; however, the primary indicators of success for advergames are increased interaction time and repetitive play. The longer an individual plays the game, the longer he or she is engaged with the brand and with the branded message. Many pro-health advergames offer performance feedback to their players, and such results can be measured as well. It is important to note that advergaming is not an effective strategy for every type of client; therefore, demographics and consumer data should be appropriately analyzed before incorporating the use of advergames into a campaign. As children and youth use online media more and more every year, pro-health advocates and other childhood obesity initiatives would be wise to utilize this strategy.
The study also found that interactive media tools are likely to evolve with the ever-changing media landscape. However, the strategy behind advergames is concrete in nature: "Provide an edutainment (combining education with entertainment) modality by creating theoretically precise, personalized, meaningful, and immersive environments that embed functional knowledge and change procedures" (Lu et al., 2010, p.1). Therefore, advergaming may prove to be a sustainable strategy in the long-term fight against childhood obesity. Importantly, if advergames are implemented into an advertising campaign, then they should work as a complement to traditional media. Successful campaigns take a multi-faceted approach and utilize integrated forms of media to reach their audiences.
This study relied on phone and email interviews from a small sample of agency professionals to gather information and insight. Face-to-face interviews may foster better explanations, more in-depth answers, and greater accuracy than phone and email interviews for future researchers looking to collect primary information. While the present findings are limited in their small sample size and data collection method, this study adds foundation to the belief that interactive media may prove to be an effective prevention tool in the long-term fight against childhood. Future research into the use of advergaming and childhood obesity prevention should focus on communication theories dealing with the persuasive nature of advergames to gain a greater insight into how such interactive media can influence children. Additional research on advergames that promote healthy food and their influence on children would provide more credibility and knowledge of interactive media as an educational tool for obesity prevention.
The author would like to thank Professor Victor Costello at Elon University for his guidance, inspiration, and advice throughout the process of researching and writing this article. The author would also like to thank each of the interviewees who made this research possible, as well as the reviewers who have helped to revise this article.
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1. What is your official title at your place of work?
2. What is the typical role of banded entertainment like advergames for clients?
3. How do companies use interactive media like advergames to promote brand image?
4. Why should companies consider online entertainment and interactive games (whether through Facebook, mobile apps, promotional software, etc.) as a part of their advertising budget? What are the benefits?
5. For what type of client is advergaming most effective?
6. Is the use of advergames an effective alternate or complement to traditional advertising? Please explain.
7. What makes branded entertainment like advergames successful for an advertising campaign?
8. How do you track advergaming interactions? Are there specific analytic channels a company can use?
9. What sort of results do clients typically want from advergaming interactions?
10. Working in a constantly changing media landscape with emerging trends in social media and technological advancements, do you think interactive media tools like advergames are a sustainable strategy for marketing professionals? From your point of view, what is the future for advergaming?