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MENDOZA IN THE NEWS

An ad in game's clothing

Online marketing pitches food to kids. Is it good for them?

by Tara Dooley
Publication: Houston Chronicle

August 13, 2006

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To kids, it may just seem like sanctioned burping.

And what could be cooler than that?

To the Campbell Soup Co., though, the Slurp-n-Burp Blaster online game that Encourages children to point, click, drag and listen for the virtual belch is also an opportunity to turn their little minds to chickenalphabet soup or SpagettiOs.

It's a game; it's an ad. It's an advergame.

"This is something parents have to be far more aware of," said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks media entertainment for children. "Up until now, when they thought of the issue of advertising and the impact on kids, they thought TV, TV, TV."

As advertising makes its way from print and television to online, it is adapting to the interactive world of the Web in forms that include the advergame such as Campbell's Slurp-n-Burp Blaster. Game advertising exists for the young and the young at heart and has been created for products ranging from Orbitz's pop-up games to Mountain Dew's driving games.

When it's aimed at children, though, some advocates become nervous. And facing an American epidemic of childhood obesity, they question the value of food advertising created to look like fun.

"Food advertising is a major concern because childhood obesity is a major public health problem," said Susan Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston.

A study released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation billed itself as the first to comprehensively look at online food advertising to children. The study, titled "It's Child's Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children," said 85 percent of food products that plug themselves to children on television also are found on the Internet. It examined 77 Web sites and 4,000 Web bases, which, according to the study, received more than 12.2 million visits by children ages 2-11 in the second quarter of 2005.

Among its findings were:

• 73 percent of the sites involve advergames such as the Ritz Bitz Sandwiches Soccer Shootout and M&Ms' Trivia Game.
• 64 percent of the sites use "viral marketing," such as features that encourage children to forward ads to their friends.
• 65 percent of the sites in the study included promotions such as sweepstakes, contests or coupons.
• 83 percent of the brands advertised made claims.
• Many advergames encouraged repeat playing by offering multiple levels and reset options, meaning that children can spend time with the advertisement.

"It is a much more active kind of exposure to advertising than TV advertising," said Elizabeth S. Moore, the study's author and an associate professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame.

The effect of this exposure on children has not yet been studied, Moore said.

But the power of suggestion is strong in these games, Linn said.

"If you spend time manipulating Hershey Kisses and thinking about Hershey Kisses for an extended amount of time, you end up really wanting chocolate," she said.

As manager of the children's room at the Houston Public Library's Central Library, Sandy Farmer provides Internet training for children and parents. The bulk of the training involves safety tips n not giving out personal information, she said.

But she is also aware that much of what children view on the Web involves advertising, whether in the form of games or as sponsors for the site they are exploring. She also knows children head to the Web to find out about their favorite TV and movie characters and products.

"Children who don't have much experience on the Internet will click on whatever flashes at them the brightest," Farmer said. "Most of the time after they have been on the Internet a couple of times they recognize what it is, and with experience it becomes more wallpaper in their world."

Internet plugs are a "very small part of the media mix" for Kraft Foods, which spent $1.3 billion on advertising last year, said company spokeswoman Renee Zahery.

The company pushes only its more nutritional products to children younger than 11. Last year, it extended that policy to online advertising as well.

But the company does have sites such as www.postopia .com with games that feature characters associated with cereals such as Cocoa Pebbles.

"We think that with our policies we can be responsible and make it a little fun," Zahery said. "It doesn't really have to be an either-or proposition."

The Kaiser study also noted some of the precautionary measures the food pushers use, such as:

•97 percent of sites offer information explicitly for parents.
•35 percent have tips on children's Internet safety.
•18 percent provide an "ad break" to remind children that they are viewing commercial content.

It also recommended that "because the Internet enables new and evolving methods of communicating with children, the need for unique types of protections for children may arise."

Unlike television advertising, it can be harder to monitor a child's Internet activity, Linn said. That means that parents have to be vigilantly involved in the children's online habits — even if it means playing games like Slurp-n-Burp themselves to make sure they can speak with knowledge about their children's concerns, Steyer said.

"Kids need to be critical thinkers, and parents and teachers need to use common sense," Steyer said.

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This article also appeared in the Pasadena Start-News.