Free games and apps targeting children are being used to market foods high in fat, salt and sugar, writes Margaret Jennings
THEY may seem like harmless fun: free games and apps with cheery cartoon characters, or websites and social media platforms featuring competitions and celebrity figures. But these branded digital platforms that lure your children in with emotion- and entertainment-based tactics, can be an unhealthy influence.
As if policing the labyrinthian maze of the internet for child-friendly material isn’t enough, now parents have to face the issue of insidious marketing to kids, in particular of unhealthy foods — the high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) variety that are contributing towards our climbing obesity rate.
For parents who find it difficult themselves to put their screens down, we now know that engaging with digital devices can be a tricky bitter-sweet experience, tapping into the reward centre in our brains.
Marketers for food companies are now using these cues, to place their branded messages, logos and trade characters in the midst of the immersive digital experience,
sealing the “positive” emotion-focussed bond between the player and the brand. In other words, the game or social media engagement becomes the advert in itself.
A child in Ireland is bombarded with 1,500 branded messages a day from multiple media platforms, according to safefood — the Food Safety Promotion Board. As a result, they are introducing an eight-week programme to primary schools here this month called MediaWise, which aims to teach children about advertising and to make sense of the media world around them.
There has been an explosion in media into our homes, even since Ireland introduced legislation in 2013 to restrict broadcast advertising of HFSS products to under-18s. The implementation of those guidelines publicly confirmed how children are influenced by food marketing, a fact about which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed major concerns.
A special report prepared last year for the Irish Heart Foundation, on digital food marketing and children, called ‘Who’s Feeding The Kids Online?’ found that marketing of HFSS foods and
non-alcoholic drinks “plays a causal role in unhealthy eating and obesity”.
But while broadcast advertising is more easily controlled, and consists of time-limited advertising slots, direct marketing through digital devices, is not, because of that entertaining immersive experience for a child.
Recent statistics from an independent study carried out for Laya Insurance which observed the health behaviours of 1,280 primary school children, found that one in five are overweight and 48% have access to a tablet, with one in three using game consoles and almost one in five using smartphones.
With the growth of high-resolution game capabilities on mobile devices, children can engage with such free platforms anytime anywhere and are encouraged by the excitement they induce, to come back for more.
Paula Mee, consultant dietician and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) says the food industry is well aware of the power of marketing and with that comes “a responsibility and accountability”.
“An in-depth study of the
research confirms that children exposed to the marketing of unhealthy choices, select more of those advertised foods and drinks,” she says. “The evidence also indicates that unhealthy food and drink marketing increases not only their intake but their preference for calorie-dense, low-nutrition foods and drinks after exposure to the advertising.”
These foods are designed to be hyper palatable, which drives “pester power”, children pressurising their parents for the products, she adds.
Research from Stirling University as well as the WHO, has also shown that the marketing of unhealthy foods does influence children’s food choices, says media consultant and parent, Sheena Horgan.
“The reality is that parents may do the buying, but the influence children have on parents’ decisions — regarding everything from cars, to holidays, to food — is significant.
“The biggest issue is the ubiquity of marketing in the very media-centric world in which they are growing up,” says Horgan, who worked on the planning of the safefood MediaWise programme.
“An ad no longer looks like an ad and research from Ofcom has shown that nearly half of kids do not recognise an ad on search engines, even when it’s labelled as such. It’s not even just about being online now; it’s about being on mobile. And Irish children’s ownership and usage of smartphones feeds into this. The opportunities are vast for marketers.
“Advergames (free games) are just one element of a brand’s marketing arsenal. Their attraction is clear when you consider the rise of gaming among kids and adults.”
The biggest benefit to the brand is its expanding reach. “Advergames are all about enjoyment, engagement and the ultimate call to action, sharing. Linking in with social media facilitates this and, given children’s growing activity on social media, this means it taps into their daily lives.”
The justification from brands will typically be that they don’t target children and they follow general marketing and advertising guidelines, as in not promoting unhealthy behaviour, for instance — which is true. “But the games don’t have to promote eating in excess or otherwise,” Horgan points out. “They just have to promote the brand, in order to tick the marketing box.”
While we may be waiting a long time for legislation to catch up, the MediaWise programme is an attempt to encourage children to analyse and engage with media rather than blindly consume those marketing messages.
A report published in 2012 by the British-based Family and Parenting Institute, called Advergames: It’s Not Child’s Play, suggested children’s brains respond to advergames on a “subconscious emotional” level, compared to more traditional forms of ads and can change their behaviour without them being aware.
In other words, while children are totally caught up in the challenge of winning, their subconscious brain is absorbing the branded messages, particularly through the repetition.
Apart from the addictive aspect, there is a more worrying element; with sophisticated analytics,
information can be collected by
requesting participants to sign up for competitions, or take part in reward programmes, or simply by using a free gaming app.
Many parents — who even enjoy playing family-oriented branded online games with their children — may be unaware themselves of their subtle influence.
In the Laya research carried out by health psychologist Prof David Hevey, of Trinity College Dublin, he found playing “active” computer games ranked in the top five most popular activities parents like to play with their children.
Currently, digital marketing of food to children in Ireland is subject to voluntary regulation by the advertising industry’s Code (Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland; ASAI, 2015).
Orla Twomey, chief executive of the ASAI, says that although they receive between 1,300 and 1,500 complaints a year, they have not yet received any regarding digital marketing to children and in
particular in relation to HFSS.
The ASAI code, which applies to marketing communications in all media, except broadcasting, demands that if the content of advertising targeted at pre and primary school children, is very engaging, then there shouldn’t be promotional offers for HFSS food, she says. “They shouldn’t use licensed characters — that doesn’t include equity characters, where a brand has developed its own character, but it would include characters from movies, with whom a child would be very engaged.
“There are also rules around not exploiting children’s credulity and lack of knowledge. We do recognise in the code that children need additional protection.”
At the end of the day is it back to the responsibility of parents?
“I think parents need to be supported in this area and that’s why we have these code rules, but
obviously they are best placed to make their own individual decisions for their children,” says Twomey.
And the door is always open: “One of the things about the ASAI code is that if we get evidence that there are concerns that we need to look at, we will certainly do that.”
While MediaWise is an attempt to educate primary school children, Horgan also believes that parents need to be vigilant. “The key tip for parents is to talk to their kids. Know what they are doing online and talk about what they see on screen.
“Get them to question why a brand would create a game or want children to play it. Helping them to critique, rather than telling them, is I think key to supporting their development and learning in this media environment.”
Making sense of the media world
Primary schools can access their free copy of MediaWise online by visiting www.mediawise.ie where schools can register their interest in the resource.
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