Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Playing "Advergames" With Kids' Health
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Let's not mince words. As any doctor or nutritionist will tell you - though perhaps more politely - there are far too many fat kids in this country, far too many kids who've put on far too many unhealthy pounds by eating far too much greasy fast food, heavily sugared cereals and other less than wholesome fare.

But, hey, it's not all bad. Handsome profits are to be had by those who advertise and sell the stuff that has helped make childhood obesity a serious problem.

They've chased their profits on television and radio, in print, on billboards, in schools, sports arenas and plenty of other places. And now they've finally turned to - where else? - the Internet. The profit chasers have gone all out in their latest attempt to reach their young targets, who generally make no distinction between advertising and factual information.

You know those TV commercials aimed at getting kids to beg mom to buy this or that sweet and crunchy breakfast food or to get dad to treat them to the latest variety of fat-saturated burger?

Well, a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 85 percent of the companies that sponsor the junk food commercials now "also use branded websites to market to children online." And the online pitches presumably are even more effective than the TV ads, since they give kids the chance " to spend an unlimited amount of time interacting with specific food brands in more personal and detailed ways."

Kaiser researchers analyzed 77 websites of such major food companies as Kellogg's and Wrigley's. Nearly three-fourths of the sites included online "advergames" - some as many as 60 -- featuring a company's product or cartoon characters associated with the product or the company's brand.

Boy, what fun for kids! Kellogg's FunKtown game, for instance, allows them to "race against time while collecting delicious Kellogg's cereal." On another typical site, they can "learn the powers of all eight charms" found in Lucky Charms cereal.

Half the websites actually offer TV commercials for viewing -- in some cases in exchange for prizes. Skittles.com advises viewers they can watch the ads "over and over right now" rather than having to wait for them to appear on TV.

Kids can also earn prizes of brand-related clothing and other items for buying specified amounts of advertised junk food and joining company-sponsored "clubs" that regularly inform them about new products. They can be rewarded as well for taking part in surveys asking them, for example, to vote for the McDonald's "dollar menu item you crave the most."

Ah, but it's not all crass commercialism. Why, many sites encourage youngsters to be good kids and share. They suggest they tell their friends via email and otherwise about the virtues they've found in particular products or brands and urge them to check out the websites that provide such valuable information.

But what of computer-deprived children? Fear not. They're getting lots of exciting new attention, too. Kids with mobile phones can expect text messages from advertisers. And some of them who ride school buses will be able to hear commercials just like those on real radio, thanks to a new outfit, BusRadio. It has contracted with school districts in several states to provide hour-long programs featuring music, news and other material -- including eight minutes of ads -- and the equipment to play them for captive audiences of school kids in exchange for a small percentage of the ad revenue.

That's in addition to the revenue many schools make from putting advertising signs on the outside of buses, in classrooms, halls and cafeterias, on arena walls, even on athletes' warmup jackets.

BusRadio boasts on its website that it's taking "targeted marketing to the next level. Every morning and every afternoon on their way to and from school, children across the country will be listening to the dynamic programming of BusRadio, providing advertisers with a unique and effective way to reach the highly sought after teen and tween market."

The people behind BusRadio are the same enterprising folks who've been giving schools everywhere millions of free book covers plastered with ads for junk food as well as expensive sneakers and other trendy clothing.

The champion kid- hustler, however, remains Channel One TV. Since 1990, it has been providing programs featuring 10 minutes of flashy, rapid-fire news briefs, plus four 30-second commercials that are shown to millions of students at the start of the school day in classrooms across the country.

So, OK, kids are being induced to crave fat-producing stuff that isn't particularly good for their health. But they are learning what many adults think is the most important lesson of all. They are learning to be consumers.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister