But television commercials may seem quaint when compared to the latest—and perhaps more sinister—wave of marketing: the food companies' high-tech websites festooned with branded kid-specific games. The genre has been evolving for years and researchers from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity have now found that the playing of these "advergames" increases children's consumption of junk food.
Watching television and surfing the web can be equally addicting, but at least television commercials have a time limit; Scooby Doo, Eddie Munster and Marsha Brady do not return to the screen after two minutes—or two hours—of playing games on the Apple Jacks website.
A story in Yale News sums up the two-tiered study:
"In the first study, the team utilized syndicated Internet usage data from comScore to examine the number and age of visitors to food company websites and the relative usage of sites that contained advergames. The study found that over one million children visit food company advergame sites every month and that they spend up to one hour per month on some sites. The majority of advergame sites promote candy, high-sugar cereals, and fast food, and many feature products that food companies have pledged they will not market to children. Young people were significantly more engaged in these sites compared with other food company-sponsored websites, according to the study.For those in need of help battling the food companies' outsized influence on our children, click here to view a helpful food marketing factsheet compiled by the Rudd Center.
"The second study examined 152 children and measured how much snack food they consumed after playing advergames that featured unhealthy or healthy food, compared with playing computer games that did not focus on food. Advergames that promoted junk food increased the children’s consumption of unhealthy snack foods by 56 percent compared to playing the healthy games, and 16 percent more than playing the control games. In addition, children who played unhealthy advergames consumed one-third fewer fruits and vegetables than children who played the control and healthy games. Children who previously played advergames were affected the most, and both older and younger children were similarly affected. Advergames encouraging healthy eating did increase fruit and vegetable consumption, but the researchers found only one advergame website that promoted primarily healthy foods."