Playing advergames that promote fruit increases energy-dense snack intake among children

As childhood obesity rates in Western societies continue to rise, health professionals and pro-health advocates are looking to use interactive media tactics for childhood obesity prevention. To compete against the overwhelming amounts of unhealthy foodbased “advergames”, many pro-health initiates have begun implementing advergames and other forms of interactive media into their campaigns as well. These online games that are used to advertise a product, brand, or an organisation, are very popular with kids, as more and more children spend increasing amounts of time on advergaming websites1. While such interactive media technologies have the potential to influence children’s food preferences and snack consumption, more research is needed to fully understand how advergames can be used as an educational or promotional tool to teach children about nutrition and healthy eating habits.

Promoting food through advergames

Earlier research has shown that children who played an advergame highlighting energy-dense food ate more energydense snacks and fewer fruit and vegetables than did children who played an advergame highlighting fruit or those in the control condition2. Pempek and Calvert3 showed that children who played an advergame promoting fruit ate significantly more fruit than did those who played a version promoting energy-dense food. Because these studies faced some methodological difficulties (ie, small samples2,3 or the use of different games in different conditions2), we re-examined the effects of advergames with large representative groups and with the same games that varied only according to the advertised content.

We examined the effect of advergames that promoted candy or fruit on children’s discretionary snack and fruit consumption. We were interested whether these games affected actual food intake of children, and whether this consumption differed according brand and product type. Furthermore, we were interested whether the advergame promoting fruit would be useful to stimulate fruit intake among children. We used an online memory game that was designed by a professional game designer. We randomly assigned 270 children (age 8–10 year) to one of the four different conditions. The conditions that we distinguished were one group of children that played:

  • an advergame promoting energy-dense snacks;
  • an advergame promoting fruit;
  • an advergame promoting nonfood; or
  • no game at all.

Subsequently, the children were seated at a different table and we presented four bowls with four different food snacks directly after they played the advergame. The children could freely eat for five minutes from two bowls that contained energy-dense food snack and two bowls that contained sliced fruit snacks. Two bowls of test food, cola bottles and bananas, were identical to one of the food products that were shown in the advergame. We measured the free intake of candy and fruit by weighing the bowls before the child entered the room and when the child left the room. After the children ate, they completed questionnaire measures and we weighed and measured them to estimate BMI.

Playing advergames containing food cues and caloric intake

The main findings were that playing an advergame containing food cues increased general caloric intake, regardless of the advertised brand or product type (candy or fruit), and this activity particularly increased the intake of candy. Children in the energydense condition had a total energy intake of 197.2 kcal on average, children in the fruit condition 184.1 kcal, while children in the nonfood condition ate only 128.9 kcal, and children in the control condition ate 121.7 kcal. Furthermore, children who played the fruit version of the advergame did not eat significantly more fruit than those in the other groups.

Playing advergames that promote fruit increases energy-dense snack intake among children

The findings suggest that playing advergames that promote food, either candy or fruit, increases the candy intake of children, and does not increase the intake of fruit. Social marketers should be aware of this effect when they try to promote healthy food. Promoting healthy food can lead to craving and eating behavior. According to our study, children will choose for more energydense snacks instead of more fruit. This is of course the opposite effect of what social marketers try to accomplish.

  1. Moore, E.S., & Rideout, V.J. The online marketing of food to children: is it just fun and games? J Public Policy Mark 2007; 26; 202-20.
  2. Harris, J.L., Speers, S.E., Schwartz, M.B., & Brownell, K.D. US Food company branded advergames on the internet: children’s exposure and effects on snack consumption. J Child Media 2012; 6: 51-68.
  3. Pempek, T.A., & Calvert, S.L. Tipping the balance: use of advergames to promote consumption of nutritious foods and beverages by low-income African American children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2009; 163: 633-7.
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