Like many children, 4-year-old Anna Woltjen pesters her mother during shopping trips for sweets and snacks. She has a fondness for all kinds of goodies but saves the hard sell for her favorite brands: Cookie Dough Bites, SuperPretzel and Icee frozen treats.
The New Jersey preschooler also asks for her mother's iPhone to play some of her favorite games, including "Cookie Dough Bites Factory," "SuperPretzel Factory" and "Icee Maker."
U.S. food companies are reaching children by embedding their products in simple and enticing games for touch-screen phones and tablets. The new medium is far cheaper than Saturday morning TV commercials and could prove as effective.
The mobile games demonstrate how new technology is changing U.S. commerce, drawing tighter bonds between marketers and young consumers.
"The apps are certainly targeted at kids," said Melinda Champion, vice president of marketing at J&J Snack Foods Corp. in New Jersey, which makes SuperPretzel and Icee drinks. "If you get the kids saying, 'Mom, I would love a SuperPretzel,' mom will often buy it for them."
Some apps are already hits. Players love racing against a timer to mix bowls of dough in "SuperPretzel Factory," which since mid-July has ranked as one of the most popular free children's games in Apple Inc.'s iPhone App Store. "Icee Maker" has been downloaded from the Apple store more than eight million times since its release last year, the app's developer said.
"It's almost a constant commercial," Anna's mother, Christine Woltjen, said of some smartphone games favored by her three children. Ms. Woltjen, of Moorestown, N.J., accepts that ads are part of U.S. culture, she said: "If it keeps them entertained for a couple minutes, it's not like my kids are only going to eat Cookie Dough Bites and not vegetables at dinner."
Makers of snacks, sweet drinks and candy have long been under government and public pressure to limit advertising to minors on TV and the Web. They are now finding the unregulated medium of mobile devices an effective substitute to trigger demand and cinch brand loyalty.
Young children can master the largely intuitive touch screens well before they read. A recent survey by research firm NPD Group found that 37% of 4- and 5-year-old Americans were using such mobile devices as a smartphone, tablet or iPod Touch, compared with less than a quarter of children that age who used a laptop computer.
The food-industry games generally have rudimentary graphics and objectives simple enough for small children to understand. They have raised debate over who should be responsible for their impact on children—parents or the government.
"Right now there are some limits to how much exposure kids can have to advertising on the Internet just because they're not always sitting at a computer," said Jennifer Harris, who directs research of marketing practices at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "But if they have their phone with them, they can be playing these games that are basically advertisements in school and basically 24/7."
No federal regulations govern how advertising is presented to children on the Internet. Some consumer advocates argue rules are needed, given that the Federal Communications Commission already regulates TV advertising directed at children.
Scrutiny of advertising to children has roots in the 1960s, when viewers of Saturday-morning cartoons were inundated with TV commercials for sugary foods. The FCC limits commercial time on weekend children's shows to 10.5 minutes per hour and effectively prohibits product placement, noting that young children are "more vulnerable to commercial messages."
Congress in 1980 barred the Federal Trade Commission, which monitors ad practices, from making broad new rules on food advertising to children. The commission and three other federal agencies last year released draft guidelines recommending that companies only advertise healthy foods to children, regardless of the medium. Companies were resistant.
"I think it's clear there's no congressional appetite for even government-proposed voluntary guidelines, much less regulation," said Mary Engle, head of the FTC's advertising practices division.
Many parents say they prefer to decide which apps their children use. Some said they don't pay much attention to how their children use mobile devices.
"The Icee game is definitely a good form of advertising. It definitely works," said Darren Ortiz of Coaldale, Pa., who was visiting New York's Times Square recently with his 11-year-old son, Noah. "But like I said, it's harmless—it's definitely good that they play that versus some of the other violent videogames that are out there."
For Noah, talk of the Icee game triggered a craving for the sweet, fizzy, frozen drink. "When I think about it," he said, "I really want one."
Food companies including Kraft Foods Inc. and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. helped pioneer online games on the website Candystand.com, which was launched in 1997.
"If you were to walk into a roomful of kids and say, 'OK. All of you that want to watch a commercial go on the left side, and all of you that want to play a game go on the right side,' where is everybody going to go?" said Scott Tannen, an early manager of Candystand, who in 2008 joined a private investment group that bought the popular website from Wrigley.
An emerging childhood obesity epidemic—striking nearly one in five Americans between ages 2 and 19—rekindled debate on new advertising rules.
Large food companies responded in 2006 by forming the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which encouraged voluntary commitments to advertising healthier food to children.
Within a year, a dozen companies including McDonald's Corp., Burger King Worldwide Inc., Mars Inc. and Kraft signed a pledge to shift more child-directed advertising to healthier foods. Post Holdings LLC and General Mills Inc. later shut down websites that pitched sugary foods alongside games.
In 2008, the council said, "advertising to the nation's children has already undergone a substantial shift toward the promotion of better-for-you foods."
By then, smartphones and tablets had started changing consumer habits. Now, some of those same companies are rushing to build a presence on mobile devices with games that appeal to children.
Wrigley this summer touted a new smartphone app, "Candy Sports." Players can hit baseballs toward a Skittles logo, kick footballs into a Starburst sign and shoot free throws in a virtual basketball arena plastered with Life Savers Gummies banners. The app is targeted to teenagers and adults, Wrigley spokeswoman Jennifer Jackson-Luth said. Like all Mars subsidiaries, she said, the company doesn't market to young children.
Kraft recently released an iPad app, "Dinner, Not Art." Players slide pieces of Mac & Cheese around the screen to create "macaroni art." Kraft said the game and its other mobile-game projects are aimed at and advertised to teens and young adults, though the TV commercial for the app stars two children who appear closer to grade-school age.
Other Kraft mobile games include "Jell-O Jiggle It," in which players try to get a cube of Jell-O to dance, and "Sour Fling," which features Sour Patch Kids candies tossed past obstacles.
In the past six months, the 16 large food companies that make up the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative have shown increased interest in mobile marketing, said the group's director, Elaine D. Kolish.
Ms. Kolish said apps downloaded by parents for their children don't qualify as child-directed advertising and should be free of any new rules. "We don't view it as our place to be a superparent—the nanny of the parents and the children to say what products they can see and what games they can play," she said.
One of the first food-branded mobile games sprang out of a 2009 brainstorming session at a small design firm in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Teresa Kiplinger, a partner at the firm, impulsively licked her iPhone. The screen responded.
Within weeks, Ms. Kiplinger and her partner had a pitch for a longtime client, Dum Dum Pops maker Spangler Candy Co. of Bryan, Ohio. The app, "Dum Dums Lick-A-Pop," would let players ingest a virtual Dum Dum lollipop by licking their smartphone before a clock ran out.
Spangler signed off, but Apple rejected the app, saying licking could damage the devices. Developers replaced licking with a vertical finger swipe and the result was "Dum Dums Flick-A-Pop."
The app has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times, Spangler said, and fans have spent the equivalent of more than 112 years swiping through the company's virtual lollipops. About a third of the traffic is coming from iPod Touches, which are popular with children.
The game's typical user, said Spangler marketing chief Jim Knight, is "probably your 6- to 12-year-old."
For smaller companies, these apps level the playing field against larger competitors. J&J Snack Foods, the makers of SuperPretzel and Icee, reported $744 million in sales in the fiscal year that ended last September, compared with Kraft and Mars, which last year reported revenues of $54 billion and $30 billion, respectively.
Mr. Knight said developing the Dum Dums game cost less than $10,000, barely the price of four 30-second TV spots during Saturday morning cartoons, according to average advertising prices provided by Nielsen.
Carol Janet was an early app explorer. She runs an Atlanta licensing agency that helps companies get their brands on everything from toys to T-shirts. Two years ago, she saw her daughter's 3-year-old niece sitting on her training potty, engrossed in an iPad.
"She was so at ease with it, so familiar," recalled Ms. Janet. "I just said to myself, 'Oh, my goodness. I have to be here. I have to take every single one of my clients into this because these young kids are the future consumers for my brands.' "
Ms. Janet struck a deal with Anthony Campiti, a videogame developer in Las Vegas, to build the mobile app for the Icee company, one of her clients, and later for SuperPretzel.
Mr. Campiti's software company, Sunstorm Interactive, has churned out dozens of simple apps in which players assembled sweets and snacks by tapping levers and buttons on the screen. Four of the top 25 free children's games in the U.S. iPhone App Store on Monday were made by Mr. Campiti's company.
"Kids are our No. 1 consumer," said Susan Woods, Icee's marketing chief. "The fact that they may think about getting an Icee next time they see an Icee machine is a lot more likely if they've engaged themselves with something to do with Icee."
The idea has spread. Last year, Scott Samet, president of Taste of Nature Inc., saw his 4- and 7-year-old children fascinated with Mr. Campiti's games. Mr. Samet's Santa Monica, Calif.-based company shifted strategies years ago from trying to sell healthy food to movie theaters to selling candy, such as Cookie Dough Bites. While trying to boost retail sales, he had Mr. Campiti build him an app.
The app—"Cookie Dough Bites Factory"—has been downloaded more than three million times, Mr. Samet said, and directly reaches children without the high cost of TV advertising.
"When you do something in print or you do an in-store display, that might appeal more to a parent or a mom—somebody who's shopping for groceries," he said. "This is mostly kids and teens actually playing a candy-making game that allows them to interact with a brand."
Anton Troianovski, The Wall Street Journal. September 17, 2012
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