- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

America’s top food companies are not playing games in their efforts to influence young consumers.

Children are.

The industry is targeting its youngest patrons through free Internet games such as the Pop-Tart Slalom, Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout and Chuck E. Cheese’s Tic Tac Toe, featuring cartoon icons from their favorite foods.

Unlike TV commercials, so-called “advergames” allow children to spend an unlimited amount of time interacting with food brands in detailed and personal ways, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study released yesterday.

“The Internet’s reach isn’t anywhere near as wide as the reach of advertising on television, but it’s a lot deeper,” said Vicky Rideout, who oversaw the research for the foundation.

Nearly three-quarters of branded Web sites, which are used by 85 percent of the top food brands, feature online games that invite users to interact with cereals, snack foods and candy at a time when childhood obesity is at a record high.

The rate of obese and overweight children has climbed 14 percent since 2002 to 18 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children also can watch Internet-only commercials or serialized “webisodes” detailing Toucan Sam’s quest for Froot Loops treasure and the adventures of Lucky, the leprechaun of cereal fame. About two-thirds of the sites encourage children to send e-mails about a product to their friends or invite them to the Web site.

The study examined 77 Web sites with more than 4,000 Web pages. The sites were visited more than 12.2 million times by users between the ages of 2 and 11 during the second quarter of 2005.

David Morrison, president and founder of Twentysomething Inc., a Pennsylvania marketing consulting firm, said advergames help elevate brands to the forefront of consumers’ minds.

“You have the individual staring at the computer, actively engaged in the game, often times playing multiple games once they get a handle of what the rules are,” he said. “The cartoon character or spokesperson should be involved in the game” for maximum impact.

The study — conducted to inform lawmakers as they consider regulating food advertising to children — did not take a position on the marketing.

However, some consumer advocates cite advergames as a factor in childhood obesity.

“Parents just don’t stand a chance with all the junk food marketing on the TV, on the Internet, on the food packages,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If food companies were using Web sites and advergames to market carrots, nobody would be complaining. But it’s mostly unhealthy foods.”

Half of the food brand Web sites listed nutritional information. More than a quarter included information about eating a healthy diet.

“We don’t think marketing to children is an either-or proposition,” said Nancy Daigler, vice president of corporate and government affairs for the North America division of Kraft Foods Inc., the world’s third-largest food company.

As part of its health and wellness initiative, Kraft recently extended its policy on TV marketing to children between the ages of 6 and 11 to the Internet so that, by the end of this year, the company will market only its healthiest products, such as Lunchables, selected cereals and 100-calorie snack packs, to children in that age bracket.

“It’s what you market and how you market it,” Ms. Daigler said.

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