April 21st, 2011
In Online Games, a Path to Young Consumers
The New York Times
Deep into one of her favorite computer games, Lesly Lopez, 10, moves her mouse to click on a cartoon bee. She drags and drops it into an empty panel, creating her own comic strip.
Lesly likes this online game so much that she plays twice a week, often e-mailing her creations to friends. “I always send them to my cousin in Los Angeles,” she said.
But this is not just a game — it is also advertising. Create a Comic, as it is called, was created by General Mills to help it sell Honey Nut Cheerios to children.
Like many marketers, General Mills and other food companies are rewriting the rules for reaching children in the Internet age. These companies, often selling sugar cereals and junk food, are using multimedia games, online quizzes and cellphone apps to build deep ties with young consumers. And children like Lesly are sharing their messages through e-mail and social networks, effectively acting as marketers.
When these tactics revolve around food, and blur the line between advertising and entertainment, they are a source of intensifying concern for nutrition experts and children’s advocates — and are attracting scrutiny from regulators. The Federal Trade Commission has undertaken a study of food marketing to children, due out this summer, while the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has said one reason so many children are overweight is the way junk food is marketed.
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.
“Food marketers have tried to reach children since the age of the carnival barker, but they’ve never had so much access to them and never been able to bypass parents so successfully,” said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy coalition. Ms. Linn and others point to many studies that show the link between junk-food marketing and poor diets, which are implicated in childhood obesity.