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. 1/3 |


As childhood obesity rates in the United States continue to rise, health professionals and pro-health advocates are looking to utilize interactive media tactics for childhood obesity prevention. This study analyzed the viewpoints of interactive media agency professionals regarding the strategy, measurement, and future potential of advergames. Research was conducted through intensive interviews with agency professionals. This study found that advergames can influence an audience's behavior through their various interactive elements and entertaining platforms. Application of Fisher's Narrative paradigm provides additional insight into the persuasive nature of advergames. Successful advertising campaigns utilize integrated forms of media, with interactive media technologies serving to complement traditional media. Despite the ever-changing media landscape, advergames may prove to be a sustainable strategy for childhood obesity prevention.

I. Introduction

Interactive media technologies have exploded in recent years. Advergaming, a new advertising trend utilizes "branded products or images within an interactive video game" and offers a unique hybrid of brand messaging (Cicchirillo, 2011, p.1). In efforts to utilize new media outlets and to optimize their online brand presence, many major food corporations have started implementing the use of advergames to market to children. Such gaming technology is very popular with kids, as more and more children spend increasing amounts of time on these advergaming websites (Moore & Rideout, 2010). However, ethical questions regarding the types of behavior learned from these games have caused concern among many health advocates and health professionals. Controversies have emerged that discuss child-targeted food advertising potentially linking to childhood obesity.

To compete against the overwhelming amounts of unhealthy food-based advergames, many prohealth initiates have begun implementing advergames and other forms of interactive media into their campaigns (Lu et al., 2010). While such interactive media technologies have the potential to influence children's food preferences and snack consumption, more research is needed to fully understand how advergames can be used as an educational tool to teach children about nutrition and healthy eating habits (Harris, Speers, Schwartz, & Brownell, 2011). There are various ways in which advergames can influence children's behavior; however, Fisher's Narrative Paradigm offers a new and critical look into the persuasive power of stories embedded in an advergame.

This study sought to examine the fundamentals of an advergame: how its persuasive power can influence children and how the success of an advergame is measured from the perspectives of interactive media professionals. Using the knowledge gained from these professionals, this study analyzed how pro-health initiatives can use such interactive media as an educational tool in promoting healthy habits and whether or not advergames are a sustainable advertising strategy in the long-term fight against childhood obesity.

II. Literature Review

In the following literature review, the author examined various articles on childhood obesity in the U.S., the impact of food marketing on childhood obesity, the delivery of advertising messages to children through interactive media, the use of advergames to prevent childhood obesity, and theoretical implications associated with processing advergames.

Childhood Obesity in the United States

Obesity is on the rise. Recognized as a nationwide epidemic, obesity in the United States has steadily climbed every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity prevalence has dramatically increased within recent decades, doubling among adults and tripling among children and adolescents ("Overweight and Obesity," 2012). Rates remain high: approximately 35.7% of adults with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher and 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents with a BMI at or above the 95th percentile are obese (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2010; Ogden, Lamb, Carroll, & Flegal, 2012). These trends have been well documented, and statistics reveal a disturbing reality: People are getting heavier and it's happening at a younger age. Today, one in three children are overweight or obese (Ogden et al., 2012).

Obesity in early life can lead to serious health consequences, putting children at risk for various diseases in adulthood such as diabetes, heart disease, and severe adult obesity (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). In addition to long-term health effects of excess weight, studies have also found numerous short-term effects during childhood like development of atherosclerosis, impaired glucose tolerance, and musculoskeletal discomfort ("Overweight and Obesity," 2012). Research reports that 70% of obese children had at least one cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factor, and 39% had two or more risk factors (Freedman, Mei, Srinivasan, Berenson, & Dietz, 2007). As the childhood obesity epidemic continues to sweep the nation, many researchers are investigating the causes and contributors to the problem.

Childhood Obesity and Food Marketers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no simple answer to the question, "What contributes to [being] overweight and obesity?" ("Overweight and Obesity," 2012). This is a complex health issue; various factors such as behavior, environment, and genetics all play a role in causing people to be overweight or obese ("Overweight and Obesity," 2012). One particular contributor has received considerable criticism and research attention: Television food advertising has sparked controversial debates about food advertising targeting children and the potential link of such marketing to childhood obesity. A comprehensive study conducted by the CDC Institute of Medicine (IOM) investigated the impact of food marketing on childhood obesity and found that television food marketing does play a role in the obesity epidemic by influencing key dietary precursors, including food-related beliefs, health preferences, and purchase requests of children and youth (Koplan, Liverman, & Kraak, 2005). Research completed by the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms the IOM's findings. After viewing toy or food commercials, the children in the study were asked to complete three food preference measures. Results revealed that all children who viewed the food commercials selected fat-rich and carbohydrate-rich items from food preference checklists (Boyland, Harrold, Kirkham, Corker, Cuddy & Evans, 2011).

In response to the correlational evidence between children's exposure to food marketing and the increasing rates of obesity, several companies in the United States have pledged to transform their childtargeted advertising. In November of 2006, the Council of Better Bureaus and 10 leading food and beverage companies launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which aims to "shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles" ("Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative," 2012). The CFBAI will go into effect on December 31, 2012 with company-specific nutrition standards that govern what food participants advertise to children. Since the initiative's founding, the number of participants has increased to 16, and 3 participants have elected not to engage in child-directed advertising ("Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative," 2012). Positive trends have emerged with the initiative and participants have enhanced the nutritional profile of foods advertised to children. The CFBAI's 2010 progress report revealed improvements among the participants' child-targeted ads, as more than three-quarters of the advertisements included foods with essential nutrients like fiber, calcium, and potassium (Kolish, Hernandez, & Blanchard, 2011). Many initiatives like the CFAI have positively impacted food marketing on television and recent research reveals a decline in television food advertisements targeted to children (Powell, Szczypka, & Chaloupka, 2010); however, many companies have turned to another form of advertising to market their products to younger audiences.

The Rise of Branded Entertainment

Technological advancements and digital innovations have created a media landscape that is constantly changing. The exclusive use of traditional media outlets no longer satisfies target audiences. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study, there has been an increase in online media use among young people, with the average youth spending an hour and a half per day on the computer (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). In an effort to make the transition from traditional advertising outlets to interactive media, many major food corporations have increasingly turned to the Internet to market food products to children (Thomson, 2010). Branded entertainment, which is a popular advertising strategy that imbeds branded messages in entertainment-oriented media content, allows marketers to utilize new media technologies and techniques (Wise, Bolls, Kim, Venkataraman, & Meyer, 2010). Many companies are jumping on the branded entertainment bandwagon, expanding their child-targeted marketing to commercial, social media, video, and third party websites (Harris, Speers, Schwartz, & Brownell, 2011). According to a report by PQ Media Research, spending efforts in the branded entertainment sector is expected to exceed $40 billion by the end of 2012, despite slower economic growth (Ames & Marx, 2008).


One particular segment of branded entertainment has become part of the fastest growing interactive media effort for advertising campaigns (Wise et al., 2010). Advergaming, which is "the delivery of advertising messages through electronic games," has become an accepted tactic among food marketers to reach a target audience (Hernandez & Chapa, 2010, p.59). These kid-friendly games are typically simple in design with short playing times, allowing for seamless distribution across various media platforms, such as websites, mobile phones, interactive digital television, and email (Cauberghe & Pelsmacker, 2010). Examples of advergames include "puzzles and classic games, arcade-style games, and other highly engaging features such as building avatars or using candy to 'paint' pictures" (Harris et al., 2011, p.4).

Brand placement is not a new phenomenon. Advertisers have utilized this strategy for decades. Product placement agreements for movies, television programs, and video games allow advertisers to promote a brand within the content created by third-party media companies; however, advergames offer a unique form of product placement that is different from traditional practice (Wise et al., 2010). Advergames are specifically designed for the purpose of promoting the sponsored brand, therefore, offering a hybrid form of brand messaging: "Advergames merge the level of advertiser control found in traditional advertising with the entertainment communication context associated with product placement" (Wise et al., 2010, p. 27-28).

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