Food firms lure with Web games

Study views online ads aimed at children

experts say sites could contribute to obesity

July 20, 2006|By MARNI GOLDBERG | MARNI GOLDBERG,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The object of the game is to sling milk at invading marshmallows, melting them before time expires. With codes from specially marked boxes of Lucky Charms cereal, players are outfitted with special powers to destroy the marshmallow intruders.

The interactive Internet game, linked to the Lucky Charms site, is a marketing tool designed to appeal to children. According to a report yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 85 percent of the leading food brands that target children with television advertising also have created online content to capture the attention of young Web surfers.

At Cheetos.com, Chester, a cheetah, finds himself chasing villains and trapped in a fiery lair, requiring the player to save him. When visitors click on the "Games" icon, they are urged to try new "Crunchy Twisted" Cheetos. The Cap'n Crunch Web site features a game with falling "crunch'd up bunches" of cereal that players must maneuver to fit together.

Internet games and other children's activities on food makers' Web sites are drawing criticism from some nutrition advocates because of the climbing rate of childhood obesity, estimated to affect 17 percent of America's youth. As children are steered from food packages to Web sites with games, some health experts worry about the effect on families' ability to teach healthy eating habits.

"Companies market a totally different diet as desirable to eat," said Margo Wooten, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Parents "are almost made out to be liars."

Although food advertising directed toward children has been studied in the past, yesterday's report is the first comprehensive analysis of the reach of online food advertising.

Television advertising still far outstrips that online. But as Internet marketing grows, and as children become increasingly adept at using computers, health experts say the interactivity and intensity of online promotional stunts, combined with the amount of time children spend viewing the sites, could have a large impact.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies health issues, identified 77 Web sites with content for children 12 and under. Children ages 2 to 11 made 12.2 million visits to the Web sites in the study in the second quarter of 2005.

Nearly 75 percent of the sites included in the study featured "Advergames," in which companies used their own characters or brand logos in interactive games. On the Hershey's Web site, for example, players shoot syrup at edible objects moving along the screen in a game called the Syrup Squirt.

Some food manufacturers suggested that the games are not inherently bad for children.

Online advertising "certainly is a way that we talk to consumers, but relatively speaking it's a small part of our advertising mix," said Nancy Daigler, vice president for corporate and government affairs at Kraft Foods. "We think you can be a responsible marketer and still provide some fun for kids."

Some experts say Kraft is a leader in trying to keep its advertising responsible.

But nutrition advocates say the Internet is becoming a new, powerful way for makers of candy, snacks, sweet drinks and sugary cereal to encourage children to eat unhealthy food.

"Overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, the Web sites that you are looking at are promoting foods of poor nutritional quality," Wooten said.

Marni Goldberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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