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Children Fail to Recognize Online Ads

“Hey kids, this is advertising.”

A thin banner with those words, or some variation of them, appears on various game sites that are aimed at children and sponsored by food companies like General Mills. The companies say such banners alert players that the games are a form of advertising, meant to encourage loyalty to cereals or junk food whose images often appear somewhere in the game.

But the banners and other notifications do not work, according to a study published in the spring edition of The Journal of Advertising. The paper finds that, despite the presence of the banners, children fail to recognize the games as advertising.

The banners “do not raise awareness of who put the game up or why they put the game up,” said one of the paper’s two authors, Susannah Stern, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego.

My Thursday story documents how food companies are seeking to reach children through “advergames.” Critics argue that such tactics blur the line between marketing and entertainment, while the companies contend that they have clearly labeled their sites as advertising.
Ms. Stern and a colleague looked at the reactions of 112 fourth-graders who played “Be a Popstar,” a game focused on the Honeycomb cereal brand that was available on Postopia, a site sponsored by Post Foods. The research found that the advertising notifications — which the study refers to as “ad breaks” — didn’t succeed in communicating the commercial nature of the site to most of the children.

Some children played a version of the game with ad labels, and some played a version with the labels removed. When the children were asked to identify the source of the game, there were no significant differences in the responses of the two groups. Thirty-four percent of all participants said the site had been created by a pop star or celebrity — the most common response. Some children even named particular stars, hypothesizing that the site was the product of, say, the Jonas Brothers. Only 10 percent correctly identified the source as the cereal maker or the Honeycomb brand.

In fact, researchers found that the children were more likely to believe that the site was trying to turn them into a pop star than that it was trying to make them want to eat Honeycomb cereal. (However, the research also showed that students who saw the ad labels were significantly less likely to believe that the site had star-making intentions.)

Even children who identified the cereal company or brand as the site’s sponsor tended not to recognize that it was intended to sell cereal. Only one participant picked up such “selling intent,” while 35 percent said the site was meant to be entertainment and 40 percent said it was intended to be informative.

Ms. Stern said the research suggested to her that companies or policy makers needed to consider some way to standardize notifications about advertising online so children understood what they were seeing.

 

Matt Richtel, The New York Times. April 21, 2011

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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