In an effort to help improve the dietary behaviors of children, a group of researchers in the College of Communication Arts & Sciences and College of Agriculture & Natural Resources are taking aim at the unhealthy foods marketed to children through online video games, or rather advergames. Their study recently was published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Advergames are video games that contain advertisements for products, services or companies and are typically offered for free.
"They're quick, easy-to-play games that use brand names, logos, pictures of the product, or even brand spokescharacters as active components of the game," said Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, assistant professor and associate director of Children's Central in the Advertising + Public Relations department. Quilliam, who also has an appointment in AgBioResearch, is a co-lead author of the study with Lorraine Weatherspoon, associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department.
"Compared to a typical TV commercial that would last maybe 30 seconds, these games are fun and engaging and children can play them for much longer periods of time," Quilliam said. "They are really virtually playing with food, and the line between entertainment and advertising gets blurred because children don't have the cognitive skills necessary to recognize a persuasive message when it's hidden as entertainment."
The article, "Consistency of Nutrition Recommendations for Foods Marketed to Children in the United States," was published in the Sept. 26, 2013, issue of "Preventing Chronic Disease." An accompanying podcast also appears on the Preventing Chronic Disease website in which Quilliam and Weatherspoon are interviewed about the study.
The other authors of the study include Nora Rifon, professor, Advertising + Public Relations; Hye-Jin Paek, associate professor and chair of the Division of Advertisement and Publicity, Hanyang University, South Korea; Mira Lee, assistant professor, School of Business Administration, Chung-Ang University, South Korea; Sookyong Kim, Media and Information Studies doctoral student; and Food Science and Human Nutrition doctoral students Sumathi Venkatesh and Julie Plasencia.
The researchers located hundreds of advergames actively played by children on food marketer websites. For the study, they focused on 145 different websites and found 439 food brands being promoted through advergames on those sites. What they found was that many of the games centered around high-fat, high-sugar and high-sodium products, Weatherspoon said.
"One of the things we were concerned about was that the majority of foods that received the most interest relative to these advergames were those that tended to be energy dense (high in calories) and not (nutrient dense) high in multiple nutrients. These foods typically included high-sugar snacks and cereals as well as instant or canned soups, sugar-sweetened beverages and several types of candy products," Weatherspoon said.
One issue addressed in the study is that there are no consistent standards for what can or cannot be marketed to children and how the marketing should be done.
"We firmly believe that some kind of federally mandated policy needs to be addressed, especially when it comes to children so that there is better control on the type and amount of marketing as well as the kinds of foods that are promoted," Weatherspoon said. "And, this is not just a big problem in the United States. I think that it's a global corporate responsibility. Our children are our future and, unfortunately, the fact is that most of this marketing is subject to industry self-regulation and not necessarily governed by a health-centered approach."
One of the goals of the research is to make parents more aware of these games and the impact they may have on the eating habits of children.
"We believe that this type of gaming is still kind of flying under the radar for a lot of parents. They may not be aware that their children are even playing this type of game," Quilliam said.
The researchers also would like to see healthy eating promoted among children through advergames.
"We hope that we can translate the use of engaging entertaining online tactics like this to teach healthy eating and other healthy lifestyle behaviors to kids," Quilliam said.
The research is funded through a $407,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. Other accepted and forthcoming articles on this research will be published in Internet Research and the International Journal of Advertising.