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Playing with food: content analysis of food advergames.

This study examines how food marketers use advergames, custom-built and branded online games, to promote food products to children and provides the nutritional content of the food products featured in the advergames. The results reveal that food marketers use advergames heavily, with candy and gum or food products high in sugar most frequently appearing in the analyzed games. Children are often invited to "play with" the foods integrated as active game components. Finally, despite the educational benefits of interactive games, fewer than 3% of the games analyzed in this study appear to educate children about nutritional and health issues.


I am deeply concerned about the current unhealthy trend toward poor nutrition and childhood obesity, which the Institute of Medicine has linked to the prevalence of television advertisements for fast food, junk food, sugared cereals, and other foods wholly lacking in nutritional value. If this trend continues, our children could be the first in generations to enjoy shorter life expectancies than their parents (U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey 2007).

The food, beverage, and restaurant industries spend $1.6 billion annually to promote their products to children and adolescents, with overall marketing expenditures for those brands of nearly $10 billion (FFC 2008b; Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006). Concurrently, over the past two decades, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in childhood obesity. According to the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 17% of U.S. children and adolescents aged two to nineteen years are overweight (National Center for Health Statistics 2007). Overweight children have an 80% likelihood of remaining overweight into adulthood, with a higher rate of morbidity and mortality (American Obesity Association n.d.). Researchers and policy makers are currently debating the role of food advertising in the childhood obesity epidemic (Hastings et al. 2003; Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006).

Accompanying the rise in childhood obesity and the proliferation of food marketing activities targeted at children are public concerns about the effects of such marketing on children's health. Food marketers have answered these concerns with several efforts. Kellogg Company, for example, decided not to advertise low-nutrient foods on television and other media aimed at children younger than age twelve (Teinowitz 2007). In a statement released in response to the Kellogg decision (see above), Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), the chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, gave public voice to concerns about the potential influence of children's advertising on childhood obesity (Markey 2007).

The concerns about the relationship between food advertising and childhood obesity are based on the assumption that children, unlike adults, are unable to comprehend the concept and persuasive intent of advertising. Researchers have found that children learn to distinguish programming (e.g., cartoons) from advertisements on television at around age four or five (John 1999; Wilcox et al. 2004), but it is not until age twelve or later when children are said to develop the capability to defend themselves against advertisers' claims (John 1999). Given this vulnerability to advertising, frequent exposure to television ads for nutritionally poor food products has the potential to influence children's poor eating habits.

Children are now exposed to food advertising through new online techniques. Among the most interactive of these new tactics aimed specifically at children is the advergame, a custom-built online game designed to promote a company's brand (Chester and Montgomery 2007; Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007; Moore and Rideout 2007; Weber, Story, and Harnack 2006). According to the 2007 American Kids Study conducted by Mediamark Research & Intelligence (2007), a majority (78.1%) of children aged six to eleven years who went online in the thirty days prior to the survey (65.9% of all respondents aged six to eleven years) reported playing online games. In another study, NPD Group (2007) found that among all child garners aged two to seventeen years, approximately half play games five hours or less per week and the other half play six to sixteen hours or more per week. It seems natural for food marketers to want to tap into this enthusiasm. The Veronis Suhler Stevenson's communications industry forecast has indicated that total U.S. spending on advergames was estimated at $264 million in 2006 and is expected to grow to $676 million by 2009 (Johannes and Odell 2007). Some marketers are actively promoting advergames through various media such as television commercials, print ads, and banner ads to attract children (Johannes and Odell 2007). More notably, some advertisers (e.g., Coca-Cola Company) are diverting their advertising dollars from television to games and other nontraditional advertising media (Grover et al. 2004).

However, advergames create some concerns when used to target children (Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007; Moore and Rideout 2007). It has been argued that if younger children have difficulty distinguishing advertising messages from the content of television programming where content and advertisements are separated from each other, those children may also have difficulty distinguishing advertising messages from the content of advergames when advertising messages are often integrated into the story line of the game (Moore and Rideout 2007). Moreover, the immersive and interactive nature of advergames has the potential to influence children's preferences for the food brands embedded in the advergames, even when they understood the persuasive intent of the advergames (Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007). Recently, Weber, Story, and Harnack (2006) and Moore and Rideout (2007) conducted content analyses of food marketers' Web sites aimed at children and found that many food Web sites targeting children used advergames.

This study extends previous studies by conducting a more extensive analysis of the content of advergames. The current study first examines how food brands are integrated in advergames to promote the food brands to children. Second, given the educational benefits of interactive games, the current study also examines to what extent food marketers use advergames to educate children. Finally, this study also reports on the product category and nutritional content of foods featured in advergames. The findings of this study will lay the groundwork for future empirical studies exploring the impact of advergames on children's food preferences for, purchases of, and consumption of food products. Additionally, the FTC and Department of Health & Human Services (2006) have requested that the academic community provides policy makers with research-based insights into new interactive food advertising and marketing strategies targeted at children. The findings of this study will provide the food industry and policy makers with a more complete picture of food advergames aimed at children.


Over time, children develop knowledge about persuasion, product, and advertiser. This knowledge, called persuasion knowledge, helps children "recognize, analyze, interpret, evaluate, and remember persuasion attempts and select and execute coping tactics believed to be effective and appropriate" (Friestad and Wright 1994, 3). Wright, Friestad, and Boush (2005) explain that knowledge of persuasion--and thus the ability to process and defend against persuasive messages--is learned, socialized, domain specific, and continually evolving. This learning--spurred by the motivation to manage an increasingly complex world--becomes more refined as the child matures.

Children's understanding of advertising is thought to develop in age-related stages, as explored in a number of empirical studies focusing on television. To understand television advertising, it is believed that children must first learn to distinguish programming (e.g., cartoons) from commercials, a skill that begins to emerge around age four or five (John 1999; Wilcox et al. 2004). However, even after children begin to recognize the difference between advertising and other programming content, they have difficulty discerning the persuasive nature of advertising messages before age seven or eight (Moses and Baldwin 2005; Wilcox et al. 2004). Some researchers also posit, moreover, that even after children begin to recognize the persuasive nature of advertising, they still do not develop the capability to defend against advertisers' claims until age twelve or later (John 1999).

In one early study (Robertson and Rossiter 1974), elementary school children were asked a series of questions probing their understanding of the information and persuasion functions of television commercials. While the proportion of children who identified information functions remained relatively constant, persuasive intent was more likely to be noted by the ten- and eleven-year-old age group (99%) than by the six- and seven-year-old children (52.7%). Blosser and Roberts (1985) also showed both commercial and noncommercial content to children aged four through eleven years and came to a similar conclusion. After viewing excerpts from television news and television commercials, the older children were able to correctly identify the persuasive intent of the advertisements, while the younger children could not.

Given children's vulnerability to advertising, the role of television food advertising in the childhood obesity epidemic has become an emerging research topic (Harrison and Marske 2005; Hastings et al. 2003; Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006; Lowry et al. 2002). Two systematic reviews of previous studies have concluded that food is the most heavily advertised product targeted to children on television (Hastings et al. 2003; Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006). Hastings et al. (2003) reported that, across a large number of studies, food advertising was found to influence children's preferences for, purchases of, and consumption behaviors relative to different food and beverage brands and categories. Importantly, the Hastings et al. (2003) study also reported that the influence of food advertisements on children's food behavior and dietary intake is independent of other factors such as parents' eating habits or attitudes. These conclusions were reaffirmed three years later by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2006). Following a systematic evidence review, they reported, "it can be concluded that television advertising influences children to prefer and request high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages" (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006, 8).

In one study, for example, Borzekowski and Robinson (2001) conducted an experiment with preschool children to examine the effect of advertising exposure on food and beverage preferences. They found that children who watched cartoons and advertisements on television were more likely to express preferences for the advertised brand (vs. a similar product) than were children who saw cartoons and educational material but no commercials. More recently, these researchers reported the results of another experiment with preschool children who expressed significantly greater preference for the taste of products packaged with the McDonald's brand compared to unbranded foods and beverages. Children with more television sets in their homes expressed an even greater preference for the McDonald's branded products (Robinson et al. 2007). Older children are influenced as well. Dixon et al. (2007) surveyed fifth- and sixth-grade children and found that heavier television viewing and more frequent exposure to television commercials were associated with more positive attitudes toward advertised "junk" food and higher consumption of such food.


The continuing increase in Internet use among children has been well documented in both the academic and the trade literature. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2005), about 63% of children aged three to seventeen years have Internet access at home. The Internet provides food marketers with a new way to attract children--advergames (Chester and Montgomery 2007; Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007; Moore and Rideout 2007; Weber, Story, and Harnack 2006). Advergames are distinguished from in-game advertising, the integration of brand identifiers in existing video games similar to product placement in movies (Nelson, Yaros, and Keum 2006; Lee and Faber 2007; Yang et al. 2006).

Consider an advergame for M&M's chocolate candies, Amazing Crispy, accessible on the M&M's Web site. In this advergame, a child becomes an anthropomorphic M&M's brand spokescharacter, "Crispy." To win the game, "Crispy," role-played by the child, is required to collect as many M&M's chocolate candies as possible. The child earns a point for every chocolate candy he or she collects and moves to a higher level of skill when all the chocolate candies have been collected. The sophistication of advergames varies greatly from short rudimentary games to longer more sophisticated games. Such varying sophistication allows children of all ages--from preschool children with short attention spans and undeveloped hand-to-eye coordination to tweens with the cognitive capacity to think more logically and strategically (Baumgarten 2003; Piaget 1959)--to enjoy playing advergames.

While watching television advertisements and playing advergames are both playful activities, the ways in which children process advergames are different from the ways that they process television advertisements. Unlike passively watching television advertisements, children actively interact with advergames (Grodal 2000; Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007). Such interaction in a gaming environment is important because it can evoke feelings of telepresence, a perception of being present in the gaming environment (Grigorovici and Constantin 2004; Molesworth 2006; Nelson, Yaros, and Keum 2006; Nicovich 2005). Since advergame playing is an enjoyable experience, a feeling of being present in the advergame can produce more positive evaluations of the brand and the game (Nicovich 2005). Although little is known about the effects of telepresence on children during game playing, the persuasive potential of advergames or in-game advertising on adult consumers has been frequently discussed by researchers. Researchers have found that the telepresence adult game players feel during game play leads to positive evaluations of the brands embedded in the game (Grigorovici and Constantin 2004; Nelson, Yaros, and Keum 2006; Nicovich 2005).

Moreover, advergames are presented as entertainment. Since advertising messages are often integrated into the story line of this type of game, younger children may have difficulty understanding the persuasive intent of advergames (Moore and Rideout 2007). With regard to this concern, the CARU, a self-regulatory ann of the CBBB, published a new guideline in 2006 that states "... on Websites directed to children, if an advertiser integrates an advertisement into the content of a game or activity, then the advertiser should make clear, in a manner that will be easily understood by the intended audience, that it is an advertisement" (CARU 2006). Even if older children understand the persuasive intent of the advergames, they may have difficulty accessing and applying their persuasion knowledge to limit persuasive effects. Mallinckrodt and Mizerski (2007) found that although seven- and eight-year-olds understood the persuasive intent of the Froot Loops advergame, Froot Loops Toss (i.e., to request that a family member purchase the cereal so the child may eat Froot Loops), those who played the advergame still showed greater preferences for the Froot Loops over other cereals and higher preference for a bowl of cereal over other food options (e.g., cheeseburger, fruit salad, sandwich) than those who did not play the advergame.

Due to questions about the potential impact of food advergames on children, there have been attempts to examine the extent and the nature of food advergames aimed at children and adolescents (Moore and Rideout 2007; Weber, Story, and Harnack 2006). In 2004, Weber, Story, and Harnack (2006) analyzed the content of Web sites of forty food and beverage brands aimed at children and adolescents and found that 63% of the Web sites analyzed used advergames. More extensively, in 2005, Moore and Rideout (2007) analyzed the content of seventy-seven Web sites for food brands targeted at children. They reported that the food marketers' Web sites they analyzed received approximately forty-nine million total visits by children aged two through eleven years annually. Their study showed that 73% of those Web sites used advergames to promote food products to children. Brand logos were most frequently embedded in those advergames, followed by food items, product packages, and brand spokescharacters. Their study also reported on several game-related features of the food advergames, such as music or sound effects (90%), customization options (39%), time limits (40%), multiple levels of play (45%), and game scores (69%).


In addition to what previous content analyses of food advergames found (Moore and Rideout 2007; Weber, Story, and Harnack 2006), examining how brand identifiers are integrated in food advergames will provide researchers and policy makers with a more complete picture of how food marketers use advergames to market their products to children. Brand identifiers are embedded in advergames in several different ways. Brand identifiers are sometimes embedded as active game components (Nelson 2002). For example, in some advergames, children are required to use brand identifiers as tools or equipment (e.g., children shoot enemies with a Popsicle ship in the Save the Day advergame for Popsicle) (Figure 1a). In other advergames, brands are used as primary objects that children are required to obtain in order to win the game (e.g., children collect as many M&M's chocolate candies as possible to earn points and move to a higher level of skill in the M&M's advergame, Amazing Crispy) (Figure 1b) or as secondary objects that children are encouraged to collect to get extra energy and/or bonus points (e.g., children collect boxes of Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles for bonus points in Post's Pebbles Robopup Run advergame) (Figure 1c).


Brand identifiers as active game components invite children to "play with" branded foods in gaming environments (Mediaedge:cia 2005). Focus groups with adult game players have found that an imaginary experience evoked by interacting with a brand in a game tends to transfer to real life (Molesworth 2006). Similarly, children's imaginary experiences evoked by "playing with" branded foods in advergaming environments may transfer to the real world, leading to positive attitudes toward the branded foods in the games. Supporting this notion, Mallinckrodt and Mizerski (2007) demonstrated that playing with Froot Loops cereals in the Froot Loop Toss advergame (e.g., children are asked to throw a Froot Loop into the monster's mouth to earn points) increased children's preference for the Froot Loops cereals promoted in the game.

Branded foods are sometimes embedded as billboard-style advertisements within advergames (e.g., the billboard advertisement for Planters is displayed in a basketball stadium in the Slam Dunk advergame for Planters) (Figure 1d). Some advertisers also display their brands around advergame frames (e.g., the Chips Ahoy! brand logo and food items are displayed around the Backyard Cabana advergame for Chips Ahoy!) (Figure 1e). Although these types of brand integration do not involve playing with the branded foods, brands appearing in the background may be expected to influence children's memory for those food brands as has been found with older game players. Previous research has found that college students who were exposed to brands appearing in the background within a sports game showed a higher level of implicit memory (e.g., unconscious recollection of recently presented information; Schacter 1987) of the brands than those who played a different game or did not play any game (Yang et al. 2006).

Given the persuasion potential of food advergames targeted at children, it is important to examine how food brands are integrated in advergames aimed at children for advertising and marketing purposes. Thus, the following research question is posed:

RQ1: What types of brand integration strategies do food marketers use in advergames for children, and to what extent do they use them?


Advertising has several goals: (1) to persuade, influencing consumers to form favorable attitudes or change attitudes toward the brand; (2) to inform, providing consumers with information about something; (3) to teach, showing consumers why or how to do something (e.g., public service announcements or educational information on direct-to-consumer prescription drug Web sites); and (4) to entertain, amusing consumers by providing them playful experience and aesthetic enjoyment (e.g., branded entertainment). These are not exclusive but instead are "fuzzy" categorizations (Blosser and Roberts 1985; Wright, Friestad, and Boush 2005, 224).

Like advertising, advergames may also have several goals (Lee and Youn 2008). Advergames aimed at children entertain children. Advertisers make interactive games available on their Web sites so that children can have fun, thus increasing the amount of time children spend on the site and the amount of time they are exposed to brand messages. Advergames as a new form of advertising on the Internet also serve to persuade children to form positive attitudes toward their brands (Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007). In addition to the entertainment and persuasion functions of advergames, advergames can also serve an educational role. Specifically, advergames can be used to teach children how to develop healthy eating habits (e.g., in the Vending Machine Mania advergame for Dole, children earn points by giving healthy foods--fruits and vegetables--to friends and by throwing junk foods--soda and chips--in the trash can; see Figure 2), teach them about product characteristics (e.g., The Bazooka History Trivia advergame informs children of the history of Bazooka bubble gum), or teach them about other subject areas (e.g., science, alphabet).

A growing number of researchers have advocated the educational potential of interactive games (Federation of American Scientists 2006; Lieberman 2006; Ritterfeld and Weber 2006). For example, fun interactive games have the capacity to hold the attention of game players (Federation of American Scientists 2006). Additionally, immediate performance feedback and scorekeeping offered in games may help game players evaluate progress toward their goals (Garris, Ahlers, and Driskell 2002). Further, allowing game players to customize their game experiences may tailor learning to each player (Federation of American Scientists 2006). Given these educational benefits of interactive games, the current study examines to what extent food marketers use advergames to educate children. This leads to our second research question:



As discussed earlier, exposure to television food advertising has been demonstrated to affect children's food preferences and requests (Atkin 1976; Rollins 2004). One of the main reasons for concerns over television food advertising aimed at children has been the fact that the advertised foods tend to lack nutritional value. From 1972 through 1999, the top advertised food category was cereal, followed closely by candy/cookies/ gum/snacks and then beverages (Reece, Rifon, and Rodriguez 1999). More recently, nutritionists found that candy, sweets, and soft drinks dominated, followed by convenience foods, breads, and cereals (Harrison and Marske 2005).

In addition to types of food products, researchers have also examined the nutritional content of the food products advertised to children on television (Harrison and Marske 2005; Kuribayashi, Roberts, and Johnson 2001; Lee and Tseng 2006). Kuribayashi, Roberts, and Johnson (2001) found that most of the food products advertised to children were high in fat, sodium, cholesterol, and sugar. This research was recently replicated by Lee and Tseng (2006). They found that about 89% of the foods advertised during children's television programming were classified as "unhealthy." Among those foods, most were especially high in sugar.

Due to concerns about the potential impact of food advergames on children's food preferences, it is worthwhile to examine the product category and nutritional content of foods featured in advergames. This leads to the following research questions:

RQ3: What types of food products are featured in advergames?

RQ4: What proportion of the food products in advergames are low-nutrient foods?


To answer the previously stated research questions, this study analyzed the content of advergames targeting children appearing on top food marketers' Web sites from July through September 2006. This study also analyzed the published nutritional content of the food products promoted in those advergames.

Sample Selection

Several steps were taken to acquire an adequate sample of the games that food marketers use to target children. The first step was to identify the food marketers and brands that appear to be promoting their products to children or marketing them to families with children. Two research assistants visited the Web sites of 150 companies identified as being among the top 25 food companies in each of the six major food categories (i.e., baked goods, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meals and entrees, meat and poultry, and snacks/appetizers/side dishes) (Refrigerated & Frozen Foods 2006), the Web sites of the top 10 fast food companies (Brandweek 2006), and the Web sites of the top 10 family restaurant companies (Nation's Restaurant News 2006) based on U.S. sales in 2005. The top-selling food companies were selected because they are more likely to be known and seen by a large number of consumers, thus having the potential to influence consumer food choices and eating habits. For the purposes of this study, a large sampling frame, including as many brands as could be located, was desired in order to examine brands that might be targeted to or consumed by children. To be as thorough as possible, brands were selected for inclusion unless they were clearly not child oriented. Among the 170 companies described above, 47 were found to offer 139 brands representing products consumed by or targeted to children and families with children (Appendix 1). These brands are comparable to the list of brands analyzed by Moore and Rideout (2007).

The second step was to identify the games appearing on the Web sites of the food marketers targeting children. The two research assistants revisited the Web sites of the 139 brands and found a total of 632 games. The number of games posted on each Web site ranged from zero (e.g., to eighty (e.g., As a final step, a random number generator ( was used to randomly select 46% (N = 290) of the games for content analysis. Thirty-nine games were dropped from the subsequent analyses because they could not be located later for intercoder disagreement resolution or access to the games was limited (e.g., "stamps" were required to access some games, available only if earned by playing other games first). Thus, a total of 251 games were included in the analysis.

Stage I: Content Analysis of Advergames

The first stage involved a content analysis of food advergames for children. To develop a code sheet for the advergames, previous studies that analyzed the content of advergames were reviewed (Moore 2006; Lee and Youn 2008). The content of some of the advergames appearing on the food marketer Web sites was then analyzed to identify new features. The code sheet included the presence and the types of brand identifiers in advergames, the product category of brands featured in advergames, the types of strategies used by the food marketers to integrate foods into the advergames, and the educational functions served by the advergames. The unit of analysis for stage I was an advergame.

A necessary condition for meeting the definition of an advergame was that at least one type of brand identifier was present within the game or around the game frame. If the game met this definition, the types of brand identifiers were coded into four categories: brand logos, branded food items, product packages, and brand spokescharacters (e.g., Mr. Peanut, M&M's Crispy) (Moore 2006). Information was then collected on the type of food products: bread and pastries, breakfast cereals, candy and gum, cookies and crackers, fruit juice, ice cream, peanut butter and jelly, prepared foods and meals, restaurants, salty snacks, soft drinks, other snacks, and others (Moore 2006). Next, the types of brand integration--whether the brand identifiers were integrated as active game components, embedded as billboard-style ads within the advergames, or displayed around the advergame frames--were coded. If the brand identifiers were integrated as active game components, the information was then further coded on whether the brands were used as equipment or tools, primary objects that children were required to obtain to earn points or to move to a higher level of skill and/or secondary objects that children were encouraged to collect to earn "bonus" points or "extra" energy. Finally, three different educational functions of advergames were identified: to teach children about healthy eating habits, to teach them about product characteristics, and to teach them about other subjects (e.g., science, history, and alphabet). The educational function of an advergame was operationalized as a function to convey information "to lead one to know or to show how to do something" (Blosser and Roberts 1985, 469).

After developing the code sheet for the content of the advergames, two coders (highly experienced, male game players) received extensive training on how to code each feature of the advergames. After jointly coding several advergames to make sure that they understood each feature in the same way, the coders individually test coded twenty-six food advergames not included in the study sample. After the training sessions, each of the two coders independently coded all the games selected for this study (N = 251). After the two coders coded all the games independently, intercoder reliability was then measured using the coefficient of reliability (Holsti 1969). The overall coefficient of reliability was 89.2%, ranging from 80.1% to 96% (see Table 1), exceeding the acceptable level of 80% suggested in content analysis texts (Lombard, Snyder-Duch, and Bracken 2002). All disagreements were reconciled after the two coders revisited and discussed the advergames examined.

Stage II: Nutritional Content of Advertised Foods

The content analysis of the identified advergames revealed a total of 150 unique food products. Because each advergame could include multiple food products and each product could appear in multiple advergames, the unit of analysis for stage II was a food product. After finishing the first stage of analysis, another graduate research assistant obtained the nutritional content of those food products by examining nutritional facts labels on company Web sites and on products in grocery stores. Nutritional facts labels of 8 products of the total 150 unique food products were not available. Thus, the nutritional content of 142 food products was included in the analysis.

Eight types of nutritional information were coded: serving size, calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, and sugar. Following previous studies (Kuribayashi, Roberts, and Johnson 2001, 313), a food product was then classified as a low-nutrient food when it met one or more of the following criteria:

1. More than 30% of its calories per serving are from fat.

2. It contains more than 360 mg of sodium per serving.

3. It contains more than 35 mg of cholesterol per serving.

4. More than one-third of its calories per serving are from sugar.


Profile of Food Advergames Sample

The majority (87.6%, N = 220) of the games sampled in this study (N = 251) integrated some type of brand identifier, meeting the definition of an advergame. The most prevalent form of brand identifier was the brand logo (present in 90.9% of the advergames), followed by the product package (40.5%), the branded food item (36.8%), and the brand spokescharacter (36.8%). It is important to note that many games contained multiple types of brand identifiers.

Brand Integration in Food Advergames

Advertisers have used different strategies to embed brand identifiers in advergames. The first RQ1 asked what types of brand integration strategies food marketers use to target children. Of the three different brand integration strategies that were identified, 67.1% of the advergames that were studied integrated brand identifiers as active game components. Brand logos (43%) were most frequently used as active game components, followed by brand spokescharacters (41.6%), branded food items (39.6%), and product packages (37.2%).

Further, this study identified how food marketers integrated their brand identifiers as active game components in advergames. Among the advergames in which brand identifiers were used as active game components (N = 147), 69.1% of the advergames used brands as tools or equipment. The findings also reveal that 46.7% of the games used brands as primary objects that children are required to obtain in order to win the game, whereas 22% used them as secondary objects that children are encouraged to collect in order to earn bonus points or extra energy.

Additionally, 54.3% of the advergames integrated brand identifiers as billboard-style ads within the games. The majority of the billboard-style ads in the advergames included brand logos (88.3%), followed by product packages (25.2%), branded food items (20%), and brand spokescharacters (18.5%). Finally, 67.9% of the advergames examined in this study displayed brand identifiers around their game frames. Brand logos (89.3%) were also ranked at the top in integrating brand identifiers around the game frames, followed by brand spokescharacters (26%), product packages (16.9%), and branded food items (8.0%). Note that each game could have multiple brand identifiers and brand integration strategies (see Table 2).

Educational Functions of Food Advergames

This study investigated the educational functions of food advergames for children (RQ2). Despite the educational benefits of interactive games, very few advergames were found to educate children: 2.7% of the food advergames analyzed appeared to educate children about nutritional and health issues, another 2.7% of the advergames served to teach children about product characteristics, and 1.4% of the advergames appeared to teach children about other subjects (e.g., alphabet).

Product Category and Nutritional Content of Foods Featured in Advergames

This study examined the product category (RQ3) and nutritional content (RQ4) of the food products that appeared in the advergames. Consistent with previous studies in children's television food advertising, candy and gum (28.6%) was the most frequently featured in advergames, followed by cereals (19.5%), soft drinks (9.5%), and salty snacks (7.5%). Regarding the nutritional content of the food products, 83.8% of the food products advertised in the advergames were classified as low-nutrient foods. The nutritional breakdown of the advertised foods indicated that 59.9% of the foods were high in sugar, 30.3% were high in fat, 5.6% were high in sodium, and 2.1% were high in cholesterol. It is important to note that each product could have one or more of the low-nutrient food qualifiers.


Food marketing to children has been considered as a potential factor contributing to the rising childhood obesity rate in the United States. The birth of advergames and the practice of food marketers using them to target children have stimulated discussions among consumer advocates and policy makers about the potential impact of such a new interactive advertising tactic on children (Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007; Moore and Rideout 2007; Weber, Story, and Harnack 2006). Despite the growing concerns and previous attempts to examine the extent of food advergames, little is known about the nature of food advergames aimed at children. This study extends previous studies by examining how brands are integrated in the advergames featured on top-selling food marketers' Web sites, to what extent the food advergames serve to educate children, and the product category and nutritional content of the food products that appear in those advergames.

The findings in this study reveal that a number of the top-selling food marketers heavily used interactive children's games on their Web sites. Among those games appearing on the food marketers' Web sites, the majority of the games (approximately 88%) were advergames designed to promote a company's brand(s). The prevalence of advergames on food marketers' Web sites found in this study supports Weber, Story, and Harnack's (2006) and Moore and Rideout's (2007) content analyses of food marketers' Web sites conducted in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Moreover, the findings of this study indicate that in many advergames (approximately 67.1% of the sample), children were invited to actively play with the foods. It is worth noting that children have been playing with plastic foods in pretend play for a long time. Food advergames provide children with new alternative ways to play with the foods. Recent findings of Mallinckrodt and Mizerski's (2007) study, which demonstrated the impact of integrated branded foods as active advergame components on children's preference for the foods promoted in the game, shed light on the persuasive potential of playing with foods in advergames. Such effects may be due to the immersive and interactive nature of advergame playing; previous research has found that interactivity of a medium leads to a more positive attitude toward the medium and an increased involvement with the medium among adult consumers (Johnson, Bruner, and Kumar 2006; McMillan and Hwang 2002). Future research should examine how the interactivity of advergame playing and resulting telepresence influence children's preferences for the advertised food brands.

More specifically, the findings in this study demonstrated that among the advergames in which brands were integrated as active game components, the brands were most frequently used as tools or equipment that children are required to use, followed by as primary objects that children are required to obtain in order to earn points or to move to a higher level of skill and as secondary objects that children are encouraged to collect in order to earn bonus points or extra energy. Future research is needed to examine the effects of different brand integration strategies in advergames on children's food consumption and perceptions about benefits of food products advertised in the advergames. According to Piaget (1959), young children cannot distinguish reality from fantasy. It would therefore be interesting to examine age differences in such effects as well.

The findings in this study also reveal that, despite the educational benefits of interactive games (Federation of American Scientists 2006; Lieberman 2006; Ritterfeld and Weber 2006), very few food advergames were found to serve to educate children about nutritional and health issues, leaving much room for improvement. Food marketers have started to address this issue. The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (2006), a voluntary self-regulation program created by the CBBB and now including thirteen of the largest food and beverage companies, recently committed its member companies to the promotion of healthy dietary options and to incorporating healthy lifestyle messages into advergames aimed at children younger than age twelve. Specifically, the healthy lifestyle messages include messages that encourage physical activity and that motivate healthy eating habits, consistent with "USDA Dietary Guidelines and My Pyramid" (The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative 2006). Such efforts to create or sponsor interactive games with educational messages for children align with many of the food marketers' own statements of social responsibility. For instance, some companies (e.g., Kellogg Company) claim that they are devoted to helping improve America's health and wellness by providing grants to schools, nonprofit organizations, and communities. Food marketers can contribute to improving the health of America's children by developing educational games to teach children about nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

The findings of this study also demonstrated that the most frequently advertised food category in advergames was candy and gum, followed by cereals, soft drinks, and salty snacks. Further, most of the food products promoted in advergames were nutritionally poor, having an excessive amount of sugar or fat. It is not new that the foods advertised to children tend to lack nutritional value. With Mallinckrodt and Mizerski's (2007) compelling evidence that advergames influence children's food preferences, however, the prevalence of food advergames for such low-nutrient foods aimed at children may pose a concern to parents, consumer advocates, and policy makers. Most likely in response to these concerns about the effects of food advertising on children, eleven major food marketers in the United States, including Kellogg, McDonald's, and Campbell Soup, recently publicly committed to phasing out advertising of foods that do not meet specific nutritional guidelines in any medium primarily aimed at children younger than age twelve; thirteen companies had agreed to participate in this initiative at the time this article was written (CBBB 2007; FTC 2008a). The data for this study were collected prior to the food marketers' announced limitations on advertising low-nutrient foods to children younger than age twelve. Building on the findings reported here, future research could examine whether the proportion of low-nutrient foods promoted in advergames aimed at children increases, decreases, or remains constant after the food marketers' recent announcement. Future studies can also aid in determining whether food marketers are following FTC (2008b) recommendations to adopt meaningful, nutrition-based standards in marketing to children.

One problem facing policy makers in the evolving advertising environment is the absence of reliable data concerning the extent and nature of new interactive marketing tactics used to target children and the effects of such emerging tactics on children (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006). This study adds to what we know about how food marketers target children on the Internet, as recommended by the FTC and Department of Health & Human Services (2006). Given that it is the collective nature of messages that ultimately influence vulnerable consumers such as children (Wolburg 2005), understanding the breadth and nature of advergames is a necessary step toward understanding their effects on children specifically and society in general. While a content analysis, such as this study, is descriptive and does not demonstrate the effects of food advergames on children, the groundwork laid in this study can be a good starting point for future research on this important topic. Specifically, consistent with one of the established contributions of content analyses (Huhmann and Brotherton 1997; Koble and Burnett 1991), a more complete picture of food advergames for children will help researchers develop relevant research hypotheses regarding the effects of advergame playing on children's food choices by examining the specific tactics that are being used by food marketers.
Samples: Brands and Companies

Brands Company Name

A&W Restaurant, Inc. Yum Brands
A&W Root Beer Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc.
Airheads Perfetti Van Melle, Inc.
AlphaBits Kraft Foods, Inc.
Altoids W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Amy's Amy's Kitchen, Inc.
Applejacks Kellogg Company
Baby Ruth Nestle S.A.
Ball Park Sara Lee Corporation
Barqs The Coca-Cola Company
Bazooka Topps
Ben and Jerry's Unilever
Big League Chew W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Big Red W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Birds Eye Birds Eye Foods
Blueberry Ice Cream Wells' Dairy, Inc.
Bomb Pop Wells' Dairy, Inc.
Brach's Brach's
Bubble Tape Wagley's
Bubblicious Cadbury Adams USA LLC
Bunny Bread Flowers Food Specialty
Burger King Burger King Brands, Inc.
Butterfinger Nestle S.A.
Campbell's Soup Campbell Soup Company
Cap'n Crunch Quaker Oats
Capri Sun Kraft Foods, Inc.
Cheerios General Mills
Cheetos Frito-Lay
Chef Boyardee ConAgra Foods
Chips Ahoy! Kraft Foods, Inc.
Cocoa Crispies Kellogg Company
Coke The Coca-Cola Company
Corn Pops Kellogg Company
Cracker Barrel Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.
Cracker Jacks Frito-Lay
Creme Savers W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Crispix Kellogg Company
Crunch Nestle S.A.
Dannon Group Danone
Dasani The Coca-Cola Company
Dole Dole Food Company
Dr. Pepper Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc.
Drake's Interstate Bakeries Corporation
Eggo Kellogg Company
Ellios Pizza McCain Foods Limited
Fanta The Coca-Cola Company
Fresca The Coca-Cola Company
Friendly's Friendly Ice Cream Corporation
Fritos Frito-Lay
Froot Loops Kellogg Company
Frosted Flakes Kellogg Company
Frosted Mini Wheats Kellogg Company
Fruit by the Foot General Mills
Fruit Flavored Snacks Kellogg Company
Fruit Gushers General Mills
Full Throttle The Coca-Cola Company
Goldfish Campbell Soup Company
Hawaiian Punch Cadbury Schweppes plc
Heinz Heinz
Hershey's Hershey's
Honey Smacks Kellogg Company
Hood ice cream bars H.P. Hood LLC
Hormel Kids kitchen Homel Foods
Hostess Interstate Bakeries Corporation
Hubba Bubba W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
IBC Rootbeer Cadbury Schweppes plc
Icee J & J Snack Foods
Iron Kids Bread Sara Lee Corporation
JIF peanut butter J.M. Smucker's Company
Juicy Fruit W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Juicy Juice Nestle S.A.
Keebler Kellogg Company
Kellogg's Kellogg Company
KFC Yum Brands
Kid Cuisine ConAgra Foods
Kit Kat Nestle S.A.
Kool-Aid Kraft Foods, Inc.
Lays Frito-Lay
Lifesavers W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Lipton Pepsico., Inc.
Little Debbie McKee Foods Corporation
Long John Silvers Yum Brands
Lowerys Frito-Lay
Lucky Charms General Mills
Lunchables Kraft Foods, Inc.
M&M's Mars, Inc.
McDonald's McDonald's Corporation
Mini-Swirlz Kellogg Company
Minute Maid The Coca-Cola Company
Motts Cadbury Schweppes plc
Mountain Dew Pepsico., Inc.
Mug Root Beer Pepsico., Inc.
Nabisco Kraft Foods, Inc.
Nantucket Nectars Cadbury Schweppes plc
Nesquik Nestle S.A.
Nestle ice cream Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream Holdings
Oberto Frito-Lay
Oscar Mayer Kraft Foods, Inc.
Pepsi Pepsico., Inc.
PET dairy Dean Foods
Pizza Hut Yum Brands
Planters Kraft Foods, Inc.
Pop Tarts Kellogg Company
Popsicle Unilever
Post Kraft Foods, Inc.
Powerade The Coca-Cola Company
Frice Dairy Dean Foods
Push Pop Topps
Rice Krispies Kellogg's
Ring Pop Topps
Scooby Doo Berry Bones Kellogg Company
Seven Up Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc.
Shoney's Shoney's North American Corporation
Sierra Mist Pepsico., Inc.
Sloppy Unilever
Skittles Mars, Inc.
Slush Puppie Cadbury Schweppes plc
Smuckers JM Smucker Company
Snickers Mars, Inc.
Sobe Pepsico., Inc.
Sour Patch Kids Cadbury Schweppes Plc
Spaghetti O's Campbell Soup Company
Sprite The Coca-Cola Company
Subway Doctor's Associates
Sunkist Cadbury Schweppes plc
Sunny D Sunny Delight Beverages Co.
Swedish Fish Cadbury Schweppes plc
Taco Bell Yum Brands
Take Five Hershey's
TG Lee Dairy Dean Foods
Tontitos Frito-Lay
Trix General Mills
Twix Mars, Inc.
Wendy's Wendy's International, Inc.
Winterfresh W.M. Wrigley Jr. Company
Wonder Bread Interstate Bakeries Corporation
Wonka Nestle S.A.
Yoo-hoo Cadbury Schweppes Plc
Zap 'ems Bellisio Foods, Inc.


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Mira Lee is an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations, & Retailing at the Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI ( Choi is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Relations at the Hanyang University, Ansan, Korea ( Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam is an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations, & Retailing at the Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI ( Richard T. Cole is a professor in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations, & Retailing at the Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI (

This research was supported by a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The authors thank Nora Rifon, Herbert Rotfeld, and the reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.
Intercoder Reliability

Variables Reliability (%)

Food product category 91.7
Presence of brand identifiers
 Brand logo 92.4
 Branded food item 88.4
 Product package 90.8
 Brand spokescharacter 93.6
Brand as active game component I
 Brand logo 89.2
 Branded food item 88.0
 Product package 86.9
 Brand spokescharacter 90.0
Brand as active game component II
 Brand as tool/equipment 80.1
 Brand as primary object 84.5
 Brand as secondary object 84.9
Brand in background within game
 Brand logo 88.0
 Branded food item 85.7
 Product package 86.0
 Brand spokescharacter 86.5
Brand around game
 Brand logo 91.6
 Branded food item 86.5
 Product package 87.3
 Brand spokescharacter 94.4
Game functions
 Teach about product 94.4
 Teach about health 94.8
 Teach about other subjects 96.0

Brand Integration Strategy

Type of Brand Integration Strategy Percent of Games

Active game components 67.1
 Brand logo 43.0
 Brand character 41.6
 Branded food item 39.6
 Product package 37.2
Billboard ads in game 54.3
 Brand logo 88.3
 Brand character 25.2
 Branded food item 20.0
 Product package 18.5
Ads on game frame 67.9
 Brand logo 89.3
 Brand character 26.0
 Branded food item 16.9
 Product package 8.0

Note: Percentages do not add up to 100 because some advergames used
multiple brand integration strategies and identifiers.
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Author:Lee, Mira; Choi, Yoonhyeung; Quilliam, Elizabeth Taylor; Cole, Richard T.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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