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Using Online Games To Sell Junk Food To Kids

Does your kid "like" jalapeno Cheetos on Facebook?

Children are especially vulnerable to advertising. It’s hard for them to tell the difference between an ad and entertainment or educational content. They don’t have the filters adults have to help manage all the information coming in.

Parents know this, and we try to teach our kids about ads and media, and to protect them from the onslaught of advertising. We have a big challenge in doing so, though. One might even say an enemy. Big corporations know about kids’ openness to ads, too. And they do their best to make it even more confusing for little ones by disguising advertising as games, toys and cartoons.

The latest round of this comes from big corporations, especially food companies selling sugary cereals and snacks.

The New York Times profiles a niche of the online game market run by big companies who use these “free” games to sell products to kids. This strategy has drawn criticism from children’s advocates and attention from regulatory agencies. The Times explains:

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.

Kids are protected from certain kinds of advertising in television and print media, thanks to a 1990 law limiting the amount of advertising that can be crammed into an hour of children’s programming. No such law governs the Internet, though, and on websites the line between advertising and entertainment often becomes non-existent. The games the kids play are the ads for cereals, candy and other unhealthy snacks.

With the food marketing so tightly entwined with their entertainment, kids develop a powerful desire for these junk foods, and set up pleas for them that parents find hard to resist.

We don’t do commercial junk food in my house, but I know how hard it can be to resist the kids’ pleas for “just one more” homemade cookie or slice of cinnamon-sugar toast. I can only imagine how much more parental willpower would have to come into play to say no to kids with the power of a huge, effective marketing machine driving them. It’s certainly parents responsibility to provide healthy food for their kids. But the food companies aren’t making our jobs any easier with these games.

Do your kids play online games sponsored by food companies? Can you tell the difference between entertainment and advertising on these sites? Do you think your kids can? Should companies be regulated against this type of advertising, or is it just up to mom and dad to keep the junk food at bay?

Photo: greencolander

The dialogue continues in Ads on Schoolbuses: Creative Way to Get Cash or Bad for Kids?

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