Online Game Advertisements Share Unhealthy Snack Ideas

In the age of entertainment streaming, commercials (almost) seem like a thing of the past. In fact, I remember fondly the classic commercials for Hot Wheels or Cap’n Crunch cereal. I knew the messages were designed to make me want whatever was being advertised, and I’m sure I begged my parents for the latest toy or brightest snack.

However, with children spending more and more of their time playing games online, companies have started targeting their advertising dollars there as well. Unfortunately, studies show kids don’t recognize those displays as advertising as easily as they would if they were on television. Additionally, the advertisements are often for unhealthy snacks, like chips or candy.

A recent study published in the March 2020 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at how different methods of online advertising affected children’s attitudes, awareness, choices and post-game snack consumption. Furthermore, it’s the first time in academic research that ‘rewarded video advertising’ has been studied.

Researchers had 156 Australian children aged 7-12 years old play an online game; afterward, the children were offered a choice of snacks. The kids were divided into four groups: a control group who did not view any advertising during the gaming session, and three groups which viewed different types of advertising for the same unfamiliar brand of gummy candy. The three types of advertising included a banner, located at the bottom of the screen, ‘advergame,’ which includes brand logos as part of the game, and ‘rewarded video advertising,’ which is a 30-second advertisement clip played in the middle of the game, after which the player advances to the next level and/or receives bonus points. Rewarded video advertising is often found in free games. After the gaming session, the children were offered a choice of one of four snacks: grapes, the unfamiliar brand of gummy candy that had been advertised, a ‘store-brand’ of gummy candy, and second unfamiliar brand of gummy candy. Lastly, the children filled out a questionnaire about their enjoyment of the game, attitude about the advertised candy, and their awareness of the advertisement itself.

With screen time now the predominant recreational activity of youth, it’s critical for parents and caregivers to be aware of what’s being advertised. ‘Advergames’ can be found on 2/3 of food manufacturers’ websites, and studies show logos and food cues do in fact influence kids’ food choices.

In the study, a significant amount of children who played the game with the ‘rewarded video advertising’ message chose the unfamiliar gummy candy that had been advertised. Additionally, a significant number of children who played the game with ‘advergame’ advertising reported they were unaware of the advertising they’d seen. The lack of awareness is troubling; especially in light of how much time children are spending online. Interestingly, banner advertising appears to be relatively ineffective, as studies show viewers tend to ignore them once they are identified as advertisements.

Bottom Line: Parents and caregivers need to take a proactive approach to combatting these messages. Kids are spending more and more time in front of screens, which brings more and more opportunities for food companies to push their (often) highly processed, high-sugar and/or high-fat snacks to an unsuspecting audience. Consider purchasing online games that do not include advertisements. If you don’t know what advertisements are being shown during your child’s gaming session, take a look. Ask your child if they noticed the advertisements, and if so, what did they think? If not, it’s a good chance to explain the different types of advertising they may see online. Use this discussion as an opportunity to reinforce your family’s food values and address any questions or concerns either of you have.

Smith, R., Kelly, B., Yeatman, H., Moore, C., Baur, L., King, L., Boyland, E., Chapman, K., Hughes, C., Bauman, A. (2019). Advertising Placement in Digital Game Design Influences Children’s Choices of Advertised Snacks: A Randomized Trial. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(3), 404-413.





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