Do Online “Advergames” Promote Child Obesity?

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Lucky Charms Box (view larger image)

Though many factors contribute to childhood obesity, one of the more potentially prominent yet less-studied aspects is what are known as “advergames”—online games that often promote less-than-nutritious food products to children.

At Michigan State University, a team of researchers will be using a National Institutes of Health grant to determine how these games affect children’s eating habits and, ultimately, their health.

Advergames are not ads per se, said Nora Rifon, a professor in the MSU Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Retailing. They are games that have brands embedded in them—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly.

“It may be that children playing these games aren’t at all aware that they’re an attempt to persuade them to really like the brand,” Rifon said.

The games may vary from a role-playing game in which the child game player acts as Lucky Leprechaun and collects charms resembling the marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal to a basketball-shooting game in which Mr. Peanut is a logo on the basketball floor.

But beyond the subliminal messages that the advertisers get across, the larger question is how these ads affect a child’s eating habits.

“We have very limited knowledge of how children respond or react to advergames in ways that influence their food preferences, their brand preferences and their eating habits,” said Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, MAES advertising, public relations and retailing scientist and a member of the research team.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents ages 12 to 19 years increased from 5 percent to 18.1 percent.

“This year’s White House report on childhood obesity is consistent with the idea that food marketing is a contributor to the problem,” Rifon said. “It’s not the sole cause. But there is enough history in other types of advertising of food to children to believe that it does influence them.

“Ultimately, our hope would be to take those techniques that are effective in selling less-healthy food to kids and apply it to healthy food and healthy lifestyles.”

During the two years of the study, the researchers will observe children playing the games and note how children of various ages respond to the games and how they process the information to form brand attitudes and preferences.

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