The XX Factor

If the Online Game Doesn’t Sell the Cereal, Then What?

Thursday’s New York Times reported that junk-food companies (in particular, Post and General Mills-there seemed to be a distinct emphasis on junky breakfast foods) are reaching kids through online games, quizzes, and apps . That sounds like a bad thing, if for no other reason than that it seems to circumvent the intent of FCC rules limiting commercial time on children’s programming and violate the spirit of the promise many companies (including General Mills) have signed to reduce marketing of their junkiest foods to kids-which includes marketing on “mobile devices.”

And now the Times’ Bits blog has the kicker: a study showing that in spite of the constant presence of banners that say things like “Hey kids, this is advertising,” most kids don’t recognize the sites as selling tools , and a full 90 percent of fourth graders never once spotted that the site used in the study (a game called “Be a Popstar” from Honeycomb cereal) was created by a cereal maker or associated with the Honeycomb brand. That makes it either very effective advertising-if the kids put down the mouse and headed out with a subliminal craving for what I seem to recall is the “big big taste” of Honeycomb (a cereal I have never tasted, but I do remember the desperate ads from Saturday-morning TV)-or the worst use of an ad budget in the world.

It’s always been difficult to measure the effect of advertising, which is generally more about creating brand awareness than about pushing an immediate craving for a particular food. The really big brands (like McDonald’s) do this so well that 3-to-5-year olds can identify them . So even kids who didn’t spot the Honeycomb may later associate it with the pleasure they got from the game. But if they don’t-if “Be a Popstar” and its ilk belong in the annals of the FAIL blog rather than in the running for a CLIO award-then maybe we have one less thing to worry about. Hello, researchers-more information, please.