As a child, my favorite thing about breakfast cereal was earning prizes. I collected box tops and UPC codes religiously in hopes of earning poorly-made T-shirts featuring Toucan Sam and useless toys that were probably worth about $1.
That said, apparently I’m not alone. As I was perusing the Internet for research about marketing to kids online, I stumbled across the results of a 2006 study conducted by the University of Notre Dame. It indicated that almost 40 percent of food companies’ Web sites employed the same marketing strategy as my Froot Loops boxes, urging kids to buy food so they can rack up points redeemable for brand merchandise and other goodies. The basic concept isn’t surprising. (It worked on me.) But I was surprised to learn that marketers are employing that strategy online.
In many cases, the study found that students are racking up points to gain access to games and other online content. About 73 percent of the 4,000 unique Web pages examined in the study included “advergames,” online contests in which the food company’s products or brand characters were featured. I guess it’s a smart strategy. (A 2005 study mentioned in Brandweek indicated that 61 percent of 4,000 kids up to age 15 play video games every day.) But it raises some serious ethical concerns, particularly with the rising childhood obesity rates in the U.S. (The CDC has a great color-changing map that shows how dramatically obesity rates increased from 1985 to 2007.) A former fat kid myself, I find this really disconcerting. This strategy not only urges kids to buy more food; it also encourages them to be sedentary!
The Notre Dame study provided no context or justification as to why this strategy is being employed and I couldn’t find additional research on the subject, but I suppose the argument from some companies might be that they’re being up-front about the nutritional content in their products and/or they’re providing educational material. The study found that “about half of the sites provided nutritional information such as that found on product labels, and 44 percent included a nutritional claim such as ‘good source of vitamins and minerals,'” but I doubt most kids know how or care to read nutrition info. About 35 percent of the sites provided educational info about dinosaurs, astronomy, geography and other subjects, but that’s not really impressive, either, since they’ll eventually learn that stuff in school anyway. I really wish someone had urged me not to eat so much sugar-coated cereal when I was a kid — it would have saved me a lot of time and money at the gym later — and I hope somebody wises up and spreads that message to these kids, too.