Policymakers are trying to get to grips with online advertising, and advergames aimed at children are a particular focus. The European Commission is toying with the idea of “protective messages” – an on-screen sentence informing the game player of the advertising intent of the game.
However, new research led by experts at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain have discovered “limitations” to this approach.
“…Playing an advergame promoting energy-dense snacks increased caloric intake in both countries, irrespective of whether the protective message was present or not,” the experts explained in their paper for the journal Appetite.
And, “remarkably”, Dutch and Spanish children between six and eight years old ate more energy-dense snacks after playing the advergame with the protective message compared to the group that didn’t get the message.
The team’s research – part of a large study for the European Commission – looked at whether a protective message in an advergame promoting energy-dense snacks would reduce children's snack intake.
The children participating in the study were randomly allocated to one of four conditions: playing the food advergame with the protective message; playing the game without the message; playing a nonfood advergame with the message; playing a nonfood game without the message.
The two games were identical, except for the advertised brands and products. The food involved consisted of eight different sweets from a popular brand. The protective message was a sentence in the upper centre part of the screen that said: “Remember: This game is an advertisement for X.”
While playing, children could eat ad libitum from two bowls filled with food containing energy-dense snacks: one with the advertised sweets and another with a different brand.
We didn’t see it?
Only 5% of the Dutch children and 4% of the Spanish children who played the food advergame with the message remembered the text of it. Meanwhile, only 40% of the Dutch children and 31% of the Spanish children who played the food advergame said they recognised the text of the message. Similarly, just 33% of the Dutch children and 39% of the Spanish children who played the non-food advergame said they recognised the message on their screens.
“The results showed that playing an advergame promoting energy-dense snacks increased caloric intake in both countries, irrespective of whether the protective message was present or not.”
The results were not what the researchers had expected. Indeed, “young Dutch and Spanish children ate more of the energy-dense snacks when a protective message was included in the advergame promoting the snacks, which contrasts with our expectations”.
One explanation for this finding, the authors noted, is that the children who played the advergame promoting the sweet snacks “subconsciously processed the protective message and reacted as if they were supposed to eat more of the energy-dense snacks after playing the game, because of the marketer’s intentions”.
Is this an example of an unintended negative impact of a policy framed with the best of good intentions, they wondered? It’s hard to say, given that eye movements were not recorded so they don’t know whether the children had seen the message or not. This is something to pursue in future research, they suggested.
But the fact that children who played the sweet-promoting advergame and remembered or recognised the protective message did not eat fewer snacks is something for policymakers to chew over.
“In the light of these findings it is implausible to believe that it would be effective to implement protective messages in food advertisements,” the authors concluded.
“Does a ‘protective’ message reduce the impact of an advergame promoting unhealthy foods to children? An experimental study in Spain and The Netherlands.”
Authors: F. Folkvord, F. Lupiáñez-Villanueva et al.