It’s a boyhood fantasy, for sure: You dribble down court, soar high through the air, and —here’s the best part—with an awesome flourish, complete a perfect tomahawk dunk while an arena-packed crowd cheers wildly. That kid fantasy is, in reality, one of more than 60 free computer games, ranging from road races and shooting galleries to backgammon and “arithmetiles,” at Nabiscoworld.com, the website of the giant snack food company. And there’s lots more like it these days at similar company websites.
Nabisco and other corporations aren’t offering free games for the fun of it, of course. They know that American children spend a staggering $24 billion for goods and services each year and influence an additional $500 billion in family purchases. They also know that 64 percent of kids ages 5 to 14 who have Internet access play games online. So it’s no surprise that many advertisers have begun using computer games as a sales tool to reach this enormous market. It’s also no surprise that some people are nervous about that.
Much of the unease revolves around the fact that most children don’t understand until age 8 that ads are attempts to sell them something, and even older children between ages 8 and 12 don’t use that understanding unless explicitly reminded to do so, explains Notre Dame Associate Professor of Marketing Elizabeth Moore. The recent emergence of “advergames” has heightened these concerns because they blur the boundary between entertainment and advertising and engage children for long periods of time.
“Games are a marketer’s dream,” says Moore, who is conducting a study for the Kaiser Foundation on the relation of advergames to food marketing and childhood obesity. “A commercial may run 30 seconds, but studies have found that kids spend an average of 26 minutes at an online game site. That’s a long time to reinforce your brand message.”
Most advergames, in fact, are used primarily to reinforce brand identity rather than overtly sell a product. In the “Dunk ’n Slam” game, for instance, a brief printed nutritional information message on “sensible snacking” linked to a Nabisco product appears before the game starts and the Oreo cookie logo is woven into the game graphics. There are no overt messages to buy the cookies.
Moore says thus far in her survey she has found that most corporations appear to be acting responsibly and with restraint in their advergame efforts. However more study of the technique and its impact is needed, she adds.