Adver-gaming for children: Is this gamification gone wrong?

There's one part of the games-meet-advertising space that seems to be working quite well -- maybe too well. Food companies, such as General Mills, Post and others are engaged in the marketing of sugary cereals and other less-than-healthy fare to children through advergames, which are advertisements dressed up as games.

There's one part of the games-meet-advertising space that seems to be working quite well -- maybe too well. Food companies, such as General Mills, Post and others are engaged in the marketing of sugary cereals and other less-than-healthy fare to children through advergames, which are advertisements dressed up as games.

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel recently took a comprehensive look at the advergaming space, giving details on how much children are attracted to this form of gamification and how nutritionists, child advocates and, now, the Federal Trade Commission are starting to crack down on companies who are directing this effective advertising towards kids.

The article gives a few examples of some of the more compelling kids games -- which generally live in a larger gaming portal. After playing through a few of them, it was easy to see why kids would want to hang out in these virtual playgrounds, with a variety of free games. These games have high production values and while simple in design, are largely well executed and include a few social/competitive hooks (such as the ability to create avatars and communicate with other players to  see how your score stacks up against the competition).

Several reminded me of stripped down versions of Disney’s kid-friendly social gaming portal, Club Penguin, except instead of paying a monthly subscription fee, all you need to do is deal with the advertising situated throughout each game.

It’s also easy to see how these game portals might be giving child advocates and other concerned parties furrowed brows. These immersive experiences are still, well, advertising though that might be difficult to discern for a young person. The Honey Nut Cheerios web site, HoneyDefender.com includes a note that says “Hey kids, this is advertising!” but there was nothing of the sort on the McWorld.com and Post Cereal’s PebblesPlay.com (though I did appreciate the latter’s constant reminder for kids to go outside and get some fresh air).

The Honey Nut Cheerios site also encourages kids to buy the products so they can then earn codes to unlock ‘extras’ in particular games (which, since kids generally do not buy their own cereal, means they then beg their parents to buy those particular products).

This might be one of the biggest examples to date of gamification done effectively -- engaging customers in a game-like experience that leads to deep engagement with the brand. While there is a lot someone could learn about gamifying a product through these sites, the question remains -- is it OK for children, who might not understand the difference between a cool game experience and advertising, to be the target of such effective marketing? Is this a prime example of gamification gone wrong? Sound off in the comments below.

Read the full article on The New York Times.

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