Advergaming Essay

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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.

Bibliography:

  1. 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).
  2. Mallinckrodt, Victoria and Dick Mizerski. “The  Effects of Playing an Advergame on Young Children’s Perceptions, Preferences, and Requests.” Journal of Advertising (Summer 2007).
  3. Marolf, Geral. Advergaming and In-Game Advertising: An Approach to the Next Generation of Advertising. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Publishing, 2007.
  4. Nelson, Michelle R. “Recall  of Brand Placements  in Computer/Video Games.”Journal of Advertising Research (March/April 2002).
  5. Sheehan, Kim. Controversies in Contemporary Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.
  6. Westin, Alan F. Privacy and Freedom. London: The Bodley Head, 1970.

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