UC DAVIS (US)—Already bombarded with television messages about bad food choices on television, new research finds that  children are also being targeted by advergames— an online marketing tool promoting high-fat, high-sugar foods.

Offering an entertaining blend of interactive animation, video content and advertising, advergames expose children for extended periods of time to online messages that primarily promote corporate branding and products.

“We knew based on our previous research that food advertising on television programming for children is dominated by high-fat quick-service restaurant options and high-sugar cereals and candy,” says Diana Cassady, associate professor of public health sciences at University of California, Davis.

“At the same time, we noticed a lot of that TV advertising included corporate Web sites, and we wanted to find out how these sites were being used to communicate about food to kids.”

The analysis, published in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, leads its authors to recommend increased regulation of food companies that target youth.

For their current study, Cassady and Jennifer Culp, lead author and training coordinator with the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program at UC Davis, conducted a detailed content analysis of all restaurant, beverage, and food Web sites advertised on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon between August 2006 and March 2007.

These networks were selected because of their high volume of Web site promotion with traditional ads. The researchers’ analysis focused on the broadcast timeframes most watched by children: weekday after-school hours and Saturday mornings.

Each site and the pages within those sites were evaluated for strategies used to prolong visits, types and frequency of branding features, and the number and prominence of nutrition and physical activity messages. After assessing 19 Web sites, 290 Web pages and 247 advergames, they found:

  • Close to one-third of the advertising that included Web sites was for food.
  • The most frequently used strategy to encourage ongoing and return Web site visits was advergames—84 percent of the Web sites assessed included online games.
  • Every advergame included at least one brand identifier, with logos being the most frequent and direct product representation being the second-most frequent.
  • On average, only one nutrition or physical activity message appeared for every 45 brand identifiers.

“I was astounded by how often logos or actual food products were integrated into the games,” says Culp.
“For example, some games used candy or cereal as game pieces. In others, a special code that was only available by purchasing a particular cereal was necessary to advance to higher game levels.”

The sites often did not include information to promote health, including nutrition facts about the product or prominent placement of links to the food guide pyramid, daily physical activity recommendations or similar resources.

“There was little messaging about healthier options or even the nutritional content—like fat and sugar values—of the product being advertised. If it was included, it was often buried in the site,” she says.

“Advergames are clearly a means of casting food with few health benefits in a positive way and potentially priming kids for a lifetime of unhealthy food preferences.”

Culp and Cassady say food companies need to develop and adhere to uniform guidelines for advertising their products to children. In the absence of voluntary marketing restrictions, the researchers recommend increased external regulation.

“Without effective self-regulation, the federal government should definitely step in and set requirements for food companies that target children.

“We can’t risk having another generation of youngsters at high risk for the long-term chronic diseases linked to unhealthy eating,” Cassady says.

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