March 9, 2016

Marketing to children

Werklund graduate student explores the use of advergaming by food companies to target children
Jewel Loewen
Jewel Loewen

In the past, the Saturday morning ritual for many North American children was a common one: clad in pajamas (sometimes the ones with the feet), we plopped down on the floor in front of the television (often a black and white set, and likely the only one in the house), and we watched cartoons for hours, a bowl of sweet cereal tucked firmly in our laps.  Often it didn’t matter to us whether there was milk, or whether the sugary morsels were eaten right out of the box.

Probably not too healthy, but who cared?  Most certainly not us kids.

How did we learn about those breakfast delights?  Simple advertising on that TV brought cartoon characters to our living rooms—a tiger, a leprechaun,  a wacky pirate, three little guys who snap-crackled-and-popped their way into our bowls—they resembled the shows we watched and provided the advertisers a straightforward, tried-and-true method to sell a product to us, the  captive audience.

Fast forward to 2016. 

Saturday morning cartoons have given way to on-demand programming, and children are discovering electronic media at an increasingly early age.  Today, it’s not uncommon for four and five year olds to be computer literate and comfortable finding their way around the internet.

So what better way for a company to reach its audience than through its website, in a fun and interesting manner?

According to Jewel Loewen, a graduate student in the Werklund School of Education’s Counselling Psychology program, websites marketing packaged food products to children are widely accessible, and many are employing interactive games, or “advergaming”, to enhance their appeal.

“With such cleverly designed and highly appealing online strategies,” she explains, “it hardly comes as a surprise when children continue to struggle in making effective nutrition choices.”

Media literacy key to making informed decisions

Loewen, who is supervised by both Werklund’s Shelly Russell-Mayhew and Charlene Elliott, professor in the Faculty of Arts’ Department of Communication, Media, and Film and the Faculty of Kinesiology, is focusing her master’s research on assessing a program developed for Alberta schools by Elliott.

In an effort to increase media and food packaging literacy, the Media Literacy and Food Marketing Lesson Plans have already been presented to over 400 school children throughout the province. Ultimately, this ongoing project aims to equip children with the skills necessary to navigate the food messages to which they are subtly--and often not-so-subtly-- bombarded.  Loewen will specifically be looking at students’ understanding, retention, and application following participation in the Lesson Plan, informing current and future program delivery.

Understanding how marketers target the audience

Before focusing her investigation on the impact of the Lesson Plan, Loewen conducted research into how young people are targeted by advertisers, considering both the marketing techniques and the tools of interactivity employed by companies today.   She chose breakfast cereals and online games as her focus, as the companies that make these products are the largest food marketers to children, and she selected five for comparison.

Her initial findings probably aren’t surprising to any parent with a tech-savvy youngster.

“In all of the games, bright colours, upbeat music, branded characters, and ‘larger than life’ qualities such as celebrity endorsements, are prominent,” she says. “And from the interactive perspective, themes include personal challenge, competition among online users, repetition, and incentives for continued play.”

“Because the online games provide such an entertaining and immersive experience, they can lead to positive evaluations of the embedded brands, directly impacting a child’s perceptions of food products,” she says.

Elliott says this type of targeted advertising towards children is part of the general critique of the commercialization of childhood. “The incessant targeting of children as consumers is off-putting to many parents.”

“Beyond this,” says Elliott, “food marketing to children today is increasingly sophisticated. It spans a broad range of promotional techniques, including advertising, packaging, product placement, celebrity endorsements, advergaming, and viral marketing.”

“While parents are the gatekeepers when it comes to the foods their children eat, all of these marketing tactics provide ways for the food industry to get around that ‘gate’.”

Self-policing leaves room for interpretation

In 2007, 18 of Canada’s leading food and beverage manufacturers signed on to the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.  Each committed to refrain from advertising directly to children or, if they did, to only advertise healthier dietary choices. According to Elliott, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Health, the Initiative covers advertising on television, radio, and through the internet and social media. 

One tactic often employed in advertising is the use of a fun colourful character to sell the product and when it comes to breakfast cereals, most of us can name a handful of iconic mascots used over the years as the chief “salespeople” for the product line. 

While the companies participating in the initiative have agreed to limit the manner in which they directly target young people, they seem to have found ways around their own regulations, and the breakfast mascots are one manner in which it’s done.    “This self-policing body claims that they do not advertise to children on the internet,” says Elliott, “but those familiar spokes-characters are exempt from this criteria, which allows companies to claim they are not advertising to children, when in fact they actually are.”

And the advergames remain on the company websites.

Testing the hypothesis through playing the games

When Loewen played all the games herself, she says she was initially shocked at the overtness of some of the messaging.  For example, in one product’s game, breakfast cereal explodes out of the box and across the screen, in effect being thrown in the face of the player.  At the same time, a background song repeats the brand name, followed by, “Eat ‘em up, Eat ‘em up.”

On another site, the character invites children to join him on a series of “magical adventures.” With each achievement, players are rewarded with trophies, potions, gems and stardust, enabling them to unlock new powers and expand their game options.

Loewen noted that while most of the games were directed towards children, there was one designed for adults.  It encouraged players to “turn back the clock” and reclaim their childhood through increasingly complex word and number games. “In this case,” she says, “not only are the food consumers targeted, but also the primary food purchasers.” 

Elliott says the question of how effective advergaming is remains to be answered. “The studies, to date, are inconclusive. Some studies have shown that advergames lead children to prefer the foods in the game—but this holds true for both unhealthy and healthy foods.”

“Other studies found that children who played an advergame for a particular sugary cereal did not make more product requests than children who did not play the game.  More work needs to be done on this topic before we can make any firm claims.”

Loewen says that, from what she’s learned so far, the prevalence of online packaged food games is of clear concern to parents, teachers, consumer advocates, and policy makers alike. “By addressing the tools of interactivity and marketing techniques in the games,” she says, “we can hopefully gain a clearer understanding of their impact.”

“This information, in turn, helps to develop more effective strategies for promoting children’s informed nutritional choices within changing food environments. “