The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Advergaming’s Influence on Food Intake

Advergaming’s Influence on Food Intake

Shoppers and Trends

March 24, 2013

There have been many efforts over the years to limit advertising of unhealthy foods to children, as many studies show the connection between exposure to food advertising and the increased consumption of energy-dense foods. With childhood obesity growing at alarming rates (U.S. rates have tripled over the past 30 years) and changing technologies in the world of advertising, researchers at The University of Amsterdam decided to look at advergaming’s effects on food intake in children. 

Advergames are free online games that integrate advertising messages, trade characters and logos into the playtime. Many food marketers use advergames to promote their products, and most of these products are high in sugar and fat (i.e. games like “Rock, Paper, Skittles” or “Juicy Fruit Out of Bounds”). Researchers wondered if advergames could influence children to eat healthier – that is, if they promoted fruit instead of sweets – so they set up the study accordingly.

After looking at 270 children who played an advergame that promoted either energy-dense snacks or fruit, researchers found that playing an advergame that contained food cues, regardless of the type of food – be it energy-dense snacks or fruit – increased intake of energy-dense foods. Children who played the fruit advergame did not eat more fruit than those in the energy-dense snack advergame group, and this was not what the researchers expected to find.

“It would be a good thing for social marketers when advergames promoting fruit could influence the fruit intake of children, but in the experiment that we conducted, we didn’t find this effect,” says Frans Folkvord, MSc, study co-author.

Folkvord found that children who played an advergame that promoted food of any kind ate significantly more than children playing advergames that promoted nonfood products. This suggests that advergames sent messages that signaled food intake, regardless of the type of food, and that the presence of sensory inputs associated with past consumptions and cravings may have led children to eat more food, and eat more of what they had been conditioned to eat in the past – in this case, more energy-dense foods. Male children, children who reported being hungry, and younger children ate more energy-dense snacks.

Interestingly, if children only had access to apples, they ate more apples when playing the advergame that promoted energy-dense foods than did other children playing nonfood advergames – evidence that the effects of food messaging in advergaming is not product type or brand specific, but transfers to whatever snack is available. 

“We are now examining whether children with overweight have an attentional bias to food cues and whether this attentional bias can explain why some children eat more after a food commercial compared to other children,” says Folkvord.

Folkvord says playing advergames differs from regular food advertisements with regard to the persuasiveness of food advertisements in three different ways. First, online games provide a more highly involving, interactive, and entertaining brand experience than is possible with conventional media forms. Second, advertiser-sponsored video games embed brand messages in entertaining animated adventures, which makes it more difficult for children to recognize the persuasive purposes of such games and creates more openness to brand messages. Third, children are exposed for a longer period of time to a food brand when playing such a game than when they watch a 30-second television advertisement. 

Unfortunately, targeting healthier items like fruits in an advergame may not directly translate into children eating more fruit, even though some prior studies came to that conclusion. Playing advergames that contain food messages, regardless of whether they promote energy-dense snacks or fruit, resulted in greater energy-dense caloric intake.

“Additional research is needed to examine the psychological mechanisms that can explain the individual susceptibility to advergames and to measure the effects of these games on the health-related behaviors of children. The marketing landscape will continue to change rapidly, and such changes will require a greater understanding of the effectiveness of advergames to examine the potential influence on children’s health and thus to inform public policy,” says Folkvord.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 are obese, and childhood obesity has tripled over the last 30 years. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, and if children are overweight, obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe. Adult obesity is associated with serious health risks including diabetes, some cancers and heart disease.