Food companies' branded online interactive games came in for criticism during a presentation of new research at the FTC's Dec. 15 hearing on food marketing and childhood obesity.
Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, assistant professor in Michigan State University's advertising, public relations and retailing department, presented the findings of a study focusing on food-and-beverages-branded online games.
Quilliam and her colleagues analyzed 146 "advergames" on the Web sites of major food manufacturers and fast-food and family-oriented restaurants. The foods featured on the sites were defined as "healthy" or "unhealthy" by using "Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools" guidelines laid out by researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
The study included a comparison of the nutritional content of foods featured by companies participating in the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) with foods on non-participants' advergames.
One of the CFBAI's core principles states that participants "will commit that, in any interactive game primarily directed to children under 12 where the company's food or beverage products are incorporated into the game, the interactive game must incorporate or be accompanied by products representing healthy dietary choices...or healthy lifestyle messaging."
Overall, the study found 83% -- or 99 out of a total of 119 identifiable food products -- to be "unhealthy."
The study found that more CFBAI-participant companies (63%) clearly identified their games as ads.
It also found that four CFBAI companies that have pledged to refrain from advertising directed to children under 12 honored that pledge in respect to advergames.
However, CFBAI participant games were found to include more "unhealthy" products (those not meeting the nutrition guidelines chosen by these researchers as the analysis benchmarks) than non-participants' games.
Among 68 CFBAI-participant company advergames, eight (11.9%) featured healthy products only, and six (9%) featured both healthy and unhealthy products. Among 33 non-CFBAI advergames analyzed, 11 (33.3%) featured healthy products only, and three (9.2%) featured both healthy and unhealthy products.
A separate analysis of CFBAI participant games only found "better for you" products and healthy lifestyle messages present in about half of these games.
CFBAI director Elaine Kolish pointed out that the results of this advergame study were not shared with CFBAI in advance of the FTC forum, making it difficult to respond in detail on the spot.
However, Kolish noted that CFBAI's latest compliance report on participants confirmed again that companies were marketing only foods that met their pledged standards, and that these nutritional standards are very similar to various science-based, third-party standards.
In addition, in her formal presentation, she showed several examples of CFBAI participant games, including ones that show only generic foods such as fruits and vegetables, ones that "promote nutrition literacy and healthy eating," and ones that promote physical activity by offering instructions for outdoor games and on-screen messages telling kids to take a break and go outside.
Kolish also announced that 2010 changes in CFBAI's core principles will include "significantly expanded" coverage of media, including digital and mobile.