October 1, 2020

In Online Games, a Path to Young Consumers

Lesly likes this online game so much that she plays twice a week, often e-mailing her creations to friends. “I always send them to my cousin in Los Angeles,” she said.

But this is not just a game — it is also advertising. Create a Comic, as it is called, was created by General Mills to help it sell Honey Nut Cheerios to children.

Like many marketers, General Mills and other food companies are rewriting the rules for reaching children in the Internet age. These companies, often selling sugar cereals and junk food, are using multimedia games, online quizzes and cellphone apps to build deep ties with young consumers. And children like Lesly are sharing their messages through e-mail and social networks, effectively acting as marketers.

When these tactics revolve around food, and blur the line between advertising and entertainment, they are a source of intensifying concern for nutrition experts and children’s advocates — and are attracting scrutiny from regulators. The Federal Trade Commission has undertaken a study of food marketing to children, due out this summer, while the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has said one reason so many children are overweight is the way junk food is marketed.

Critics say the ads, from major companies like Unilever and Post Foods, let marketers engage children in a way they cannot on television, where rules limit commercial time during children’s programming. With hundreds of thousands of visits monthly to many of these sites, the ads are becoming part of children’s daily digital journeys, often flying under the radar of parents and policy makers, the critics argue.

“Food marketers have tried to reach children since the age of the carnival barker, but they’ve never had so much access to them and never been able to bypass parents so successfully,” said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy coalition. Ms. Linn and others point to many studies that show the link between junk-food marketing and poor diets, which are implicated in childhood obesity.

Food industry representatives call the criticism unfair and say they have become less aggressive in marketing to children in the Internet era, not more so.

Since 2006, 17 major corporations — including General Mills, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Burger King — have taken a voluntary pledge to reduce marketing of their least nutritious brands to children, an effort they updated last year to include marketing on mobile devices.

The pledge says the companies, if they choose to market to children, will only advertise food choices that are “better for you,” said Elaine D. Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an arm of the Better Business Bureau that oversees the pledge.

“Compliance is excellent,” she said of the pledge. She noted that in recent months, companies had shut down several child-centric sites, including General Mills’s popular virtual world Millsberry, while other sites have been changed to focus on adults, like those of Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Pepsi’s Cap’n Crunch. And she said General Mills and Post Foods had cut or pledged to cut the amount of sugar in some cereals.

Only rarely do these major companies violate their pledges, she said: “It’s pretty darn infrequent and it’s not willful.”

Nutrition experts say that the voluntary pledges are fraught with loopholes, and that “better for you” is a relative term that allows companies to keep marketing unhealthful options.

Whatever criticism they may invite, the companies have good financial reason to pitch to children. James McNeal, a former marketing professor at Texas AM University, estimates conservatively that children influence more than $100 billion in food and beverage purchases each year, and well over half of all cold cereal purchases.

Children “have power over spending in the household, they have power over the grandparents, they have power over the babysitters, and on and on and on,” said Professor McNeal, who has researched family behavior for decades and consulted for major companies on marketing to children. “All of that is finally being recognized and acknowledged.”

Some parents, like Lesly Lopez’s mother, Toribia Huerta, 26, say the online marketing is subverting their efforts to improve their children’s diets. Ms. Huerta said Lesly and her younger siblings pester her for sugary cereals they see in the games and for snacks like Baby Bottle Pops, a candy with a game site that the girl also visits often.

“They ask me for it constantly. They’re hard to resist when they whine,” Ms. Huerta said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. She blames her daughter’s love of sugar for her dental problems, including many cavities.

But Ms. Huerta also said the food sites seemed fun and safe: “They look like good games for her age.”

Games for Goods

Joshua Brustein contributed reporting from New York.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/business/21marketing.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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