Forest Hartmann, a Concord, N.H., 7-year-old, recently sat down at the family computer to play a game of basketball. After shooting some baskets, he felt hungry. He asked his mom for some Oreos.
Sylvia Hartmann wasn't surprised. After all, her son was playing Oreo Dunk 'N Slam on one of Kraft Foods' websites, Nabiscoworld.com. Banners behind the virtual basket read ''Oreo Lick 'em!!!'' and ``Oreo Dunk 'em!!!''
''How can you think of anything else but Oreos?'' his mother asks, recalling the incident.
As the popularity of online games takes off, marketers of kids' food are turning the games into a new advertising vehicle. Brand-laden diversions, sometimes called ''advergames,'' are emerging as a powerful and inexpensive new ad medium, cropping up on dozens of sites from marketers of cookies, candy, cereal, chips and soda.
Visitors play free of charge, but in return they soak up a heavy dose of advertising. They often are exposed to dozens of brand images and messages while playing a single game. Game creators say their users include both children and adults; the typical player spends a half-hour on a game site, often replaying a single game 15 times or more.
Kraft's Nabiscoworld.com features advergames for at least 17 brands, plus classic games such as chess, mah-jongg and backgammon. Some games integrate brands into the play. In Ritz Bits Sumo Wrestling, for example, players control either the Creamy Marshmallow or the Chocolatey Fudge cracker in a belly-smacking showdown, which results in the ``S'more''-flavored cracker.
PepsiCo's Frito-Lay unit has an auction site for kids and kids' sports teams called ePloids.com: The currency is Ploids, which kids get from bags of chips. (Most one-ounce bags are worth one ploid each.) According to the site, merchandise recently auctioned off includes a Toshiba 20-inch television set (for 5,801 ploids) and a Nintendo Game Cube system (for 5,025). Winning bidders redeem their ploids by mail.
Companies promote their advergame sites on food packages, in TV commercials and on Yahoo! and other major Internet portals. Some run sweepstakes and contests and sponsor links between their sites and others. For instance, on the Neopets site, players can collect points for their virtual pets by clicking on links to advergames for McDonald's Corp., Hershey Foods Corp.'s Bubble Yum and General Mills's advergaming site, ''You Rule School!'' Players can redeem points for candy, snacks and other prizes.
Marketers love Web games because they deliver brand messages cost-effectively. The cost to air a 30-second TV commercial ranges from $7.31 per thousand viewers during the day to $29.90 during prime time, according to SQAD, a Tarrytown, N.Y., media-research firm. In contrast, there are no costs to ''air'' advergames. Spreading developments costs across the typical number of players, advergaming can cost less than $2 per thousand users, proponents say.
But the games are drawing fire from advertising critics, including those concerned about childhood obesity. They say many advergames are designed to bombard children with snack-food ads. Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says children younger than eight can't tell the difference between a marketing pitch and straightforward information. ''They just don't understand persuasive intent,'' Kunkel says. ``It's a great way to put candy, chocolates and junk food in a good light. It's almost as if Dan Rather was reading the news to them.''
Catherine Li, an analyst at technology-market research firm Forrester Research, calls advergaming a ''sly'' approach. It ''really crosses that line between advertising and content, and that's probably why advertisers like it,'' she says.
Some worry that the absorbing nature of the games, the age of many of the players and the data collected in online surveys make for an uneven playing field. Advertisers are ''being allowed to prey on your weakness,'' says Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C., watchdog. Companies can create ''little profiles of children and dangle ads for fast foods and snacks that they know they have a weakness for,'' he adds. ``I consider that kind of advertising to be really unfair.''
Major brand marketers say their game sites abide by guidelines for children-directed online advertising established by Children's Advertising Review Unit, an independent panel sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission, which monitors ads on TV and the Web. First-time visitors to these sites usually have to register by providing their parents' e-mail addresses; most sites send a permission request to the parents' accounts.
A Kraft spokeswoman said adults are the intended audience for Nabiscoworld and Candystand.com, the company's other advergaming site. ''We know that most of the visitors to these sites are adults,'' she adds.
''We believe that our products may be included in moderation as part of a balanced, healthy diet,'' says Charles Nicholas, a Frito-Lay spokesman. ``In addition, we believe that advergaming, which is a small part of [our] promotional mix, does not undermine the promotion of an active, healthy life.''
According to data from Nielsen Net Ratings, which tracks online usage, Nabiscoworld and Candystand notched a combined 4.2 million visits in February -- a 45 percent increase from February 2003 and an 83 percent rise from August 2002, when Nielsen began tracking advergaming.
Some parents don't seem to mind their kids playing the online games. But others are irritated by the electronic side effects. Fred Thompson, a Fredericksburg, Va., father of three children ranging from seven to 15 years old, says he recently had to pay a tech shop $200 to rid his children's computer of software used to generate onscreen ads and tracking ''cookies,'' which accumulated partly from his kids' visits to advergame sites. ''They're not only marketing to our children,'' says Thompson. "It's also costing us money."
Joseph Pereira, The Wall Street Journal. May 17, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.