WASHINGTON—Has your child played Chips Ahoy! Soccer Shootout yet, or entered the Pop-Tart Slalom?
Better check your grocery list. They're two of a virtual shelf-full of "advergames" that food manufacturers are putting on their Web sites to sell products to children.
With childhood obesity a national concern, public health advocates have often blamed the food industry for using children's television to sell candy, sugary cereals and fast food to pint-sized audiences.
But that's so last century. Television still carries the bulk of junk food advertising, but the Internet is the newest medium for the message, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"The Internet really kind of combines the elements of print, radio and television advertising all rolled into one," said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser vice president who directs its study of the entertainment media and health. "The Internet is potentially way more powerful an advertising medium than TV ever dreamed of."
The study by the nonprofit private health care policy group found that three-quarters of the 77 product Web sites and 4,000 Web pages it analyzed included "advergames"—product promotions in the form of Internet games. Experts said they allow children to play endlessly in an interactive name-brand world rather than passively stare at 30-second TV ads.
On General Mills' Lucky Charms Web site, the Minneapolis-based cereal manufacturer wants users to "learn the powers of all eight charms." On Kellogg's FunKtown Web site, they can "race against time while collecting delicious Kelloggs cereal."
Some Web sites also include information about better nutrition and encourage children to exercise, the study found, and 35 percent contained educational content. McDonalds' Ronald McDonald Web site has information about dinosaurs and a link to Chicago's Field Museum.
Several participants at a Kaiser panel discussion Wednesday said that Kraft Foods was "light years ahead" of other manufacturers in promoting healthier foods. Kraft vice president Nancy Daigler said the company uses the Internet only to advertise its healthier line of children's products.
"We don't see this as an either-or proposition," she said. "You can be a responsible marketer and also provide some fun for kids."
The federal rules governing children's advertising govern how much may be aired during children's programming. The Children's Advertising Review Unit was created by the business community, and works with advertisers on a voluntary basis.
Daniel Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers told the panel that the industry was developing healthier products and that it was time to move "beyond the blame game."
Kaiser found that many product Web sites encouraged repeat playing. Nearly 40 percent of the sites offered incentives for children to purchase food to collect points, which can be exchanged for access to other games or gifts.
A quarter of the Web sites enabled kids to sign up for new products, special offers and upcoming commercials. Only half required parental permission.
And almost two-thirds of the sites encouraged users to e-mail friends about the products. "Send a friend this fruitylicious site!" says the Juicy Fruit gum Web site.
Some also come with kid-friendly tie-ins, such as the Cheetos Web site that offered a game called "May the cheese be with you" and M&M's encouraging users to "Choose the dark chocolate side."
"Everything we're talking about has bearing on childhood obesity," said Dr. William Dietz, director of nutrition and physical activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Childhood obesity is a risk factor for heart disease and other health problems later in life. The CDC's most recent study found a 16 percent increase among children and adolescents ages 6 to 19—a 45 percent jump over the previous study.
"Food and beverage advertising for children is out of balance for a healthy diet and puts children's' health at risk," said Dale Kunkel, an expert on children and the media at the University of Arizona and who served on an Institute of Medicine panel that studied food marketing to children.
Kunkel said that the Institute of Medicine recommended that Congress mandate better nutritional standards in children's advertising if the industry "doesn't get a better balance."
To visit some of the Web sites, you can go to:
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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