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Online Games Market Sugary Foods to Kids

We talked yesterday about how important it is to teach kids not to fall for the use of cartoon characters in the marketing of sugary foods, but a study by the UC Davis School of Medicine says there’s a new enemy in the fight against childhood obesity: advergames.

Advergames are exactly what they sound like: online games designed for children that promote corporate products, mostly sugary foods.

A simple Google search for “kids games food” brought up an ad that deceptively reads, “Moms! Test Your Gaming Skills with Kellogg’s™ Pop-Tarts™ Online Games.”  The game, found here and pictured above, is clearly not meant to be played by anyone over age 10.  It’s a memory game, filled with sparkly, sprinkle-covered Pop-Tarts, topped with a huge ad that says in large, neon print, “LESS SUGAR. SA-WEET!”  At the very bottom of the page, in teeny-tiny print, it says, “Contains 25% less sugar than 55 to 75 of the top 100 toaster pastries. Kellogg’s® Pop-Tarts® Ice Cream Shoppe™ Toaster Pastries contain 11g to 12g sugar/48g serving compared to 16g to 21g sugar/50 to 54g serving in other toaster pastries.”

Wow.

The UC Davis study looked at all of the restaurant, beverage and food websites advertised on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon during after-school hours and on Saturday mornings from August 2006 through March 2007.

After assessing 19 websites they found “the most frequently used strategy to encourage ongoing and return website visits was advergames — 84 percent of the websites assessed included online games.”  On average, “only one nutrition or physical activity message appeared for every 45 brand identifiers,” such as cartoon character mascots, pictures of food and logos.  In some games, “a special code that was only available by purchasing a particular cereal was necessary to advance to higher game levels.”

These games, much like Facebook, are offered for free, but they certainly come at a cost.

Jennifer Culp, co-author of the study, says, “Advergames are clearly a means of casting food with few health benefits in a positive way and potentially priming kids for a lifetime of unhealthy food preferences.”

The UC Davis team says they “appreciate the standards in Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity report,” but “in the absence of voluntary marketing restrictions,” they feel “the federal government should definitely step in and set requirements for food companies that target children.”  Diana Cassady, senior author, says, “We can’t risk having another generation of youngsters at high risk for the long-term chronic diseases linked to unhealthy eating.”

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