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Disney plans to mix ads, video games to target kids, teens

To reach kids and teens to promote Disneyland's 50th anniversary this year, Walt Disney Co. will use one of the hottest — and most controversial — gimmicks in the media business: "advergaming."

Advergaming is when companies put ad messages in Web-based or video games. Sometimes the entire game amounts to a virtual commercial for a TV show or product. Sometimes advertisers sponsor games; sometimes they buy ad space integrated into them.

The online arcades put up by advertisers that include Disney, Viacom's Nickelodeon and even the U.S. Army rival titles from the $10 billion video game industry in entertainment value and high-tech expertise.

But ad critics such as Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy decry them as "digital infomercials" that blur the lines between content and commercials and often collect data on consumers playing the games.

"These are not just harmless games. It's part of the brainwashing of America," Chester says.

As part of an 18-month global campaign that kicks off on May 5, Disney will roll out an interactive, multiplayer game called "Virtual Magic Kingdom." It aims to provide a virtual visit to Disney's five global resorts and 11 theme parks to anyone with an Internet connection. The target: "tweens" ages 8 to 12 and young teens.

Visitors will be able to play free online games based on real attractions, such as the Haunted Mansion and Jungle Cruise. They'll also be able to chat, create their own avatars, or graphic icons representing real-life Web surfers in cyberspace, and earn virtual points that can be redeemed for T-shirts and other goodies at the actual parks.

The goal: push kids to urge their parents to visit a Disney park during the anniversary promotion that also includes the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland on Sept. 12.

"We hope it becomes a real hangout for preteens and teens," said Jay Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, during a recent news conference about anniversary-marketing plans.

Jeff Logsdon, managing director at investment banker Harris Nesbitt, says Disney's strategy "is clearly a clever way to engage with a key part of their target market. Kids 10 years old and younger have really grown up with the Internet."

Forrest Research predicts advergaming will grow into a $1 billion business this year. As marketers try to target kids and elusive Gen Y consumers, Madison Avenue is waking up to the fact that Webwise younger consumers like video games — and disdain pop-ups, banner ads and other less-subtle forms of online advertising.

And rather than get a kid's attention for just 30 seconds with a TV commercial, advergames can capture them for minutes or hours.

"If a kid likes a game, they'll play it 15 times," says Tim Spengler, executive vice president of media services company Initiative. "Companies are asking 'What's my game strategy?' "

But companies wanting to create successful advergames have to be careful about the quality of the game experience, says Michael Goodman, senior analyst at the Yankee Group.

"The key is to remember that it's a game first and an ad second. If it's a good game, consumers will recognize they're being sold. But they won't care," he says.


Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY. January 18, 2005

Copyright © 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.. All rights reserved.