Advertisers that are deemed to be promoting junk food (high in salt, sugar and fat) haven’t been allowed to broadcast their messages to children on TV in the UK since 2007. For example, this means that McDonald’s is prohibited from airing an advert on a children’s TV channel, or either side of a children’s cartoon. However, children are the main target market for these kind of products – sweets, fizzy drinks and fast food. Advertisers are always trying to find a way of impacting this audience without flouting the rules, and they’ve succeeded.
In what’s being referred to as a “regulatory loophole”, advertisers are creating games across different platforms – desktops and mobile devices – that centre around interacting with their brands. The main audience for these so called “advergames” is children.
What Are Advergames?
Advergames don’t always look like adverts on first glance. The product that’s being promoted is often integrated into the game itself, becoming an element of the gameplay or a reward for succeeding at the game. They encourage the user to interact with the brand and there is therefore a strong argument that this interaction causes them to be a lot more effective in overtly or subliminally affecting brand preference in a children than traditional TV advertising could ever achieve.
Channel 4’s trailer for Dispatches: Tricks of the Junk Food Business
What Does the Research Say?
Research into advergames labels them as a way by which advertisers can manipulate children into forming preferences towards their products. It questions whether current regulations are strong enough to recognise that this is happening.
It’s similar to the way that children are often first attracted to a toy at a fast food restaurant and then become interested more and more in the food over time. In this case, the game and the activities within the game are what’s appealing, but children are then being influenced consciously or subconsciously by the junk food advertiser that has created the advergame.
The University of Bath’s report calls for:
- An immediate requirement for an obligatory, clear, uniform labelling system for children’s advergames and in-game advertising
- Public debate on whether advertising techniques that persuade children subconsciously should be legal
- Requirement for regulations that apply to advertising of HSSF (high salt, sugar, fat) products on television to extend to children’s websites
- Public consultation on whether a children’s arm of the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) or an independent council should be set up to oversee marketing to children across all media platforms
The University of Bath’s Dr. Haiming Hang discusses his research.
The Future of Advergaming
So does advergaming have a future? If the findings of the report are anything to go by, we won’t be seeing our children playing these kind of branded games moving forwards. However, unlike TV advertising, a UK-based ban on advergames is likely to be futile. Online-savvy kids are likely to find ways around regulatory efforts to restrict their access to such games and will continue to enjoy playing them if they enjoy doing so.
In my opinion in the short-term it’s the responsibility of the advertisers and their agencies to think twice about the ways in which they are using advergames to promote their products and whether they deem it an ethical way of doing so. These advertisers know that the way to reach children in the digital age is to use digital means. Children know their way around the internet like the back of their hand, whether this be through social media or on video sites such as YouTube. It’s these touchpoints that junk food advertisers need to think twice about using.