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Advertisers often try to employ new technologies to deliver advertising messages to consumers. One way is to embed advertising messages that promote a product or service in Web-based or video games, and this integration of advertising and game is called advergaming. Through playing these interactive games, players become aware of certain brands, products, or services; form favorable attitudes to them; and increase demand for the featured brand, product, or service. This alternative way of product promotion has become popular, especially with the increasing number of online gamers. According to the marketing author and practitioner Geral Marolf, there are two types of advergaming. One type is to create a product themed electronic game, and the entire game is a virtual commercial that centers on promoting a product or service. The second type is advertisers sponsoring electronic games by inserting billboards, banner ads, or posters that include the brand name in games. Compared with the first type, the integration level of advertising and game in the second type is lower.
Since many young people are immersed in electronic games, brands that target young consumers try to influence their preferences through advergaming. What is noteworthy is that the first type of advergaming has successfully inoculated young consumers with product knowledge and brand preference. For example, two cereal companies, Kellogg and General Mills (GM), actively market their cereal products to young children through brand-themed advergaming. Millsberry.com is a GM advergaming Web site aiming to market GM’s breakfast cereal brands to children. Each player on Millsberry.com creates an avatar who lives in the virtual town of Millsberry. Also, the player needs to make nutritional choices for the avatar as the avatar’s health is tracked over time. To maintain good health for the avatar, the player must regularly log in on the Web site and purchase foods from a variety of food groups, using Millsbucks to feed the avatar. When making purchasing decisions, the player needs to read the nutritional facts for each item. On the Web site, GM’s breakfast cereal items are labeled as healthy foods and are often accompanied by messages that encourage the player to buy them, even though cereals for children are high in added sugar. As a result, to complete the game’s mission, players are highly motivated to process the product information embedded in the game. When the avatar is full, the player receives a message to let the avatar do some exercises. In this way, Millsberry.com leaves the impression on children that it promotes a healthy lifestyle, creates a perfect story to promote GM cereal products, and helps children shape a favorable brand attitude.
In some other examples, advertisers just insert commercial messages in electronic games directly, without creating a whole story for the advertised products. For instance, in the electronic game Plants vs. Zombies 2, a player needs to have enough coins to purchase extra powers (i.e., Power Snow, Power Toss, and Power Zap) to defeat zombies on a higher level. When there are not enough coins in the account, the player needs to spend real money to purchase new coins from the online game store. However, Plants vs. Zombies 2 provides an alternative way for players who are not willing to spend real money: they can earn 250 coins each time they watch a video commercial. There is a button named “FREE COINS” under the coin icon, and a player who wants to earn extra coins can click on the button. Then the player is directed to watch a commercial. The player can watch more than one commercial and keep earning extra coins. The commercials are usually not related to the game context, so players have less motivation to process the product information. Sometimes, to earn the coins, a player can just play the commercial without paying any attention to it. Another example is auto-racing games, in which billboards are placed beside the roads. Players are exposed to the advertising messages while playing the game. Still, there is no guarantee that a player has actively processed the product information.
Even though advergaming seems to be an innovative way of promoting products, marketers still wonder whether players pay attention to the product information in the games and are influenced by the information. Noticeably, children are motivated to play games for fun, entertainment, and the joy of winning. The fun and engaging game experiences can influence players’ attitudes to the advergames and thereafter to the embedded brands. According to a widely cited study by Victoria Mallinckrodt and Dick Mizerski, children who played an interactive, brand-centered advergame showed more preference for the advertised brand than those who did not play the advergame. Moreover, this preference grew as the children’s age increased. However, the children’s preference for the brand did not lead to higher demand for the product. Nevertheless, these interactive, brand-centered advergames reinforce a positive brand image in young players’ minds as product information is part of the entire game story. Besides, the interactive animated imagery of a brand inside an advergame captures children’s attention to process the product information, which may get them more engaged than traditional advertising does. Moreover, children can send e-mails to their friends via the game Web sites to invite them to play the advergames, which forms an endorsement. Because of peer influence, advergames can attract more people through players’ endorsements.
In the second type of advergaming, which includes brand names in games through billboards, banner ads, or posters, the advertising scholar Haiming Hang found that only a small percentage of child players could remember seeing the brand names. This may be due to the fact that individuals have limited capacity for processing information. While playing an advergame, a player pays full attention to the games and allocates most of the resources to processing the interactive game information—playing the game, after all, is the primary task. Since the total amount of resources is limited, individuals may not have enough resources available to process the brand information and therefore cannot recall the brand names. Another reason is that, unlike the first type of advergaming, in which processing brand information is part of the primary task (e.g., in the advergame on Millsberry.com, players need to read the nutritional facts for the featured product to complete the game mission), the second type of advergaming does not provide an environment in which the brand information and the game play are highly connected. Therefore, players do not have enough motivation to allocate resources to processing the brand information in the games.
It is noted that children who play a game that includes brand information show a preference for the featured brand, even though they may not remember the brands. Usually, brand information placed in an obvious and focal position in games (e.g., in a car-racing game, the brand information is placed on the gates through which a car needs to pass) will generate better recall results than if it is placed in the background. Yet the fact that children will still develop favorable brand attitudes even though they cannot recall the brand names is good news for those brands that were placed in a relatively small game background. This may suggest that children can be influenced by the brand messages in games subconsciously, especially when the brand information is not easy to notice. In addition, the advertising scholar Michelle R. Nelson discovered that most of the adult players remembered seeing the brand names, even when the brands were unfamiliar ones. Also, the players showed favorable attitudes toward the products embedded in a game.
Despite advergaming being a promising strategy for marketers, there are some concerns regarding marketing to youth, especially to children. Advertisers try to create entertaining experiences for the youth group and cultivate them as consumers of their products via advergames.
Young children, facing the advertising tactics, are vulnerable. Unlike traditional advertising, which has a slogan to present a clear sales intention, advergaming integrates advertising messages into the gaming setting, which makes it even harder for children to be aware of the persuasive environment. For example, when children are playing an advergame featuring Froot Loops cereal products, they learn that they will earn more points if they choose Froot Loops cereal than if they select real fruits or other brands of cereal products. The advergame itself does not claim overtly that Froot Loops cereal is better than other brands in the same category or that it is healthier than fruits. Yet children will form that knowledge unconsciously while enjoying the game play. And their attention to playing the game may even divert them from casting doubts on the purpose of the game. Noticeably, this effect can be more obvious among young children than older children. Thus, the interactive environment and the fascinating narrative work together to conceal the persuasive intention of an advergame. Moreover, when children are playing a car-racing game, they see billboards along the road inside the game. Yet they may not find the billboards suspicious or unnatural because they are used to living in a real world that is surrounded by billboards. On the other hand, the fun, exciting, and engaging game experiences children get from playing the games make them hold positive emotions during game play. And the positive emotions derived from game play can be transferred to the positive feeling toward the embedded product or brand.
Because of their underdeveloped cognitive abilities and the nature of advergaming, young children may not be able to detect the persuasive intentions of advergames and cannot differentiate commercial messages from the noncommercial content. In fact, many children never doubt the purpose of advergames. According to the persuasion knowledge model, the way consumers process messages in a perceived nonpersuasive environment is different from a setting in which they are aware of the persuasive purpose of the environment. In other words, consumers are more likely to accept the message without doubt when they perceive no persuasive intention there; however, they find the message suspicious and become resistant to it if they find a persuasive intention within it. Since one’s level of knowledge of persuasive intent can mediate the influence of persuasive messages on oneself, young children, who possess little knowledge of the persuasion attempts in advergames, may not resist the advertising influence on them. What is noteworthy is that a majority of the food and beverage industry is using advergames to target young consumers, and many of them promote their low-nutrient and high-sugar products as healthy items in those games, which actually leads to unhealthy eating behaviors among children. Since these products are a part of the game components, children can easily accept the misinformation that they are healthy while playing the games.
The effects of food and beverage advergames on children’s eating preferences and behaviors have caught people’s attention. In a lot of cases, these advergames incorporate food and beverage products as essential game components and adopt cartoon characters to promote the products. Children can interact with the characters in the games, which drives them to form positive attitudes toward the characters, and thus toward the featured products. Thus, advergames present brand messages to children in a way that is fun and entertaining. Especially, young children lack the cognitive ability and motivation to process the brand messages in games but pay more attention to peripheral cues, such as cartoon characters, music, color, and sound effects. Consequently, these cartoon characters can easily grab children’s attention and subsequently direct them to the branded food and drink products. Once a close relationship is established between a child player and a cartoon character through interaction, the latter becomes a credible spokesperson for the product in the game. In addition, these advergames include various built-in features such as multilevel game play to make players addicted to the games, thus repeatedly exposing themselves to the embedded products. As a result, children develop preferences for the low-nutrient food and beverage products.
Another issue revolving around the use of advergaming is privacy. According to the law professor Alan F. Westin, privacy refers to one’s control over one’s own personal information and one’s right to determine when and how that information can be shared with others. However, advergaming not only imbues young players with product information, it also encourages them to disclose their personal information through registration and game play. In this case, young players do not realize that they are sharing their personal information with others and therefore do not take control of their personal information. Regarding marketers’ collection of the information that children share online, government regulations such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act require marketers to seek verifiable parental consent before collecting information from children under the age of 13 years. Nevertheless, the privacy of young game players above the age of 13 is not protected by the act. Moreover, existing regulations mainly deal with online marketers’ active collection of children’s information, but children’s voluntary information disclosure online (i.e., registration in games) is rarely addressed.
- Hang, “Brand-Placement Effectiveness and Competitive Interference in Entertainment Media: Brand Recall and Choice in Kids’ Video-Game Advertisements.” Journal of Advertising Research (June 2014).
- Mallinckrodt, Victoria and Dick Mizerski. “The Effects of Playing an Advergame on Young Children’s Perceptions, Preferences, and Requests.” Journal of Advertising (Summer 2007).
- Marolf, Geral. Advergaming and In-Game Advertising: An Approach to the Next Generation of Advertising. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Publishing, 2007.
- Nelson, Michelle R. “Recall of Brand Placements in Computer/Video Games.”Journal of Advertising Research (March/April 2002).
- Sheehan, Kim. Controversies in Contemporary Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.
- Westin, Alan F. Privacy and Freedom. London: The Bodley Head, 1970.