Food Brands Use Plenty of E-Tactics to Engage Kids: Study

By Jul 20, 2006

More than eight out of 10 of the top food brands that target children though TV ads also use branded Web sites to market to children online, setting the stage for longer time period spent interacting with food brands.

Advergames were found on 73% of the Web sites and viral marketing capabilities on 64%, often with incentives to send e-mails to friends about a product or to visit a Web site, according to the new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, conducted to help inform the industry, consumer advocates and policymakers.

The study found that a number of other marketing tactics were overlaid onto the sites, including sweepstakes and promotions (65%), memberships (25%), on-demand access to TV ads (53%) and incentives for product purchase (38%).

“Online advertising’s reach isn’t as broad as that of television, but it’s much deeper,” said Vicky Rideout, VP and director of Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, who oversaw the research. “Without good information about what this new world of advertising really looks like, there can’t be effective oversight or policymaking, whether by the industry or by government.”

The sites in the study contained 546 games featuring one or more food brands, such as the Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout, Chuck E. Cheese’s Tic Tac Toes, the M&Ms Trivia Game and the Pop-Tart Slalom. Many of the games encourage repeat playing (71%), offer multiple levels of play (45%) or suggest other games the visitor can play (22%).

The study also found that:

  • Half (53%) of all sites in the study have television commercials available for viewing. On Kellogg’s FunKtown site, children can earn stamps by viewing commercials in the “theater.” On the Lucky Charms and Frootloops sites, serialized Webisodes unveil animated stories featuring brand characters and products. On Skittles.com, users are told they can watch the ads “over and over right now” instead of having to wait for them to appear on TV.
  • Half of sites (51%) included nutritional information found on a product label, and 44% included some type of nutritional claim, such as “good source of vitamins and minerals.”
  • Twenty-seven percent have information about eating a healthy diet, such as the number of servings of fruits and vegetables that should be eaten daily. For example, the Kellogg’s site Nutritioncamp.com included such features as “nuts about nutrition” and “decipher the secrets of the Food Pyramid.”
  • Almost four in 10 sites (38%) have incentives for the user to purchase food so they can collect brand points or stamps to exchange for premiums (such as gaining access to new games or purchasing brand-related clothing). For example, children are encouraged to purchase specially marked packages of Bubble Tape gum and then enter the codes online to get free Nintendo game tips.
  • One in four (25%) sites offer a “membership” opportunity for children age 12 or younger. Children who sign up on Web sites may be proactively informed about new brands, exclusive offers and new TV commercials available for viewing. Thirteen percent require parental permission, while 12% do not.
  • Thirteen percent of sites include polls or quizzes, some of which were used to ask visitors their opinions on products or brand-related items. For example, on Cuatmcdonalds.com, visitors are asked to vote for “the dollar menu item you crave the most” and for “your favorite McDonald’s IM icon character.”
  • Three out of four (76%) sites offered at least one “extra” brand-related option for children, such as screensavers or wallpaper for a child’s computer, printable coloring pages, branded CD covers or brand logos or characters that can “live” on the child’s computer desktop.
  • Thirty-five percent of sites offer some type of educational content, ranging from historical facts about dinosaurs to astronomy, sports or geography.
  • A third (33%) of sites include what the study has dubbed “advercation,” a combination of advertising and education, such as using a brand character to present educational topics, or covering topics such as the history of how chocolate is made on Hersheys.com.
  • Almost all (97%) of the sites in the study provided some information explicitly labeled for parents, such as what type of information is to be collected from children on the site (93%), legal disclaimers (88%), a “contact us” link (87%), statements about the use of “cookies” (81%), and statements of compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) (74%), or adherence to Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) guidelines (46%).
  • On all Web sites where personal data was requested (beyond a first name, screen name or e-mail address for one-time use), mechanisms were in place to ensure that children age 12 and under did not submit any information without parental permission.
  • Although CARU’s guidelines state that “advertising content should be clearly identified as such” on product-driven Web sites, only 18% of the sites studied included any kind of “ad break” or other notice to children that the content on the site included advertising.
  • Two-thirds (65%) of all brands in the study have promotions in which children may participate in some way. They include sweepstakes (such as the chance to win a Nintendo Game Cube system on Bubbletape.com or a trip to Nickelodeon studios on PFgoldfish.com) or the chance to get free merchandise related to the food product.

The study included detailed analysis of 77 Web sites, including more than 4,000 unique Web pages. Based on Nielsen//NetRatings data, the sites received more than 12.2 million hits from children ages two to 11 in the second quarter of 2005.

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