As part of his doctoral thesis for the Dutch universities of Amsterdam and Radboud, researcher Frans Folkvord conducted a series of studies involving over 1000 children that looked at the effects of online advertisement games - or advergames - on eating behaviour, as well as discussing possible ways to counter these.
He found that children who played a game with an embedded advert for a candy brand ate 55% more sweets during a five minute break than those whose game contained an advert for a toy, whilst a previous study by the same researcher found that children eat more candy snacks after playing advergames containing food cues, regardless of whether the games relate to candy or fruit.
Meanwhile individual characteristics, such as attention and impulsivity, account for differences in children’s ability to resist the attractive food cues. One experiment, which used an eye tracking system to measure eye movements in order to determine attentional bias, found that overweight children have a greater attentional bias for food cues compared with normal weight children, but not for non-food cues.
Boost children's 'ad-literacy'
According to the researcher, children should be taught to be more media savvy. “Since food related advertisements are omnipresent and integrated in children’s (media) environment, it is important to educate children about the influences of food marketing and how to become more defensible against these influences.
“More specifically, children’s advertising literacy should be stimulated, to decrease their susceptibility to food advertisements,” he writes, pointing to other studies in which teenagers were taught to self-regulate their attention away from food cues and could thus reduce their subsequent caloric intake.
Nevertheless, Folkvord argues the most effective measure would come from restricting advergames. “Policy makers should make clear and make decisive steps towards protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, by restricting or prohibiting food advertising to children.
“This might have a larger public health impact than individual approaches such as attention retraining to combat the impact of food marketing on children,” he writes.
Advergames - a grey area
Big name manufacturers, such as Kellogg, Coca-Cola and confectionery company Cloetta have been accused of exploiting a legal grey area by using advergames to plug products that are high in sugar, salt and fat, something they have strenuously denied.
But campaigners hoping for a tightening of rules around the practice were left disappointed earlier this year when a report by the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice’s (CAP) on digital marketing tactics, such as advergames, failed to bring them in line with existing broadcasting rules.
These stipulate that food and drink advertisements targeted at children should not condone unhealthy diets, use cartoon characters or encourage pester power, but CAP’s report concluded that current rules on online advertising were sufficient although it advised marketers to clearly label online advertising material that could be seen by children.
Folkvord says his doctoral study is the first of its kind to involve a follow-up investigation on the long-term impact on kids' food choices after being exposed to advertisements, in a large group of representative children.
The researcher tracked the BMI of children two years after playing the advergame and found that those who ate more of the energy-dense snacks still had a higher BMI over time, whereas those who had chosen an apple after playing the energy-dense advergame had lower BMIs. “This suggests that teaching children to cope with environmental cues that trigger craving for palatable food by eating healthier food, like fruit, might be beneficial to affect body weight successfully,” he writes.
“These children had apparently learned to make healthier choices,” he adds.
Source: Behavioural Science Institute publication, Radboud University of Nijmegen
PhD thesis paper, January 2016
Title: “Children’s Reactivity to Embedded Food Cues in Advergames”
Author: Frans Folkvord