Parents? Stay Ahead of The Game, Literally.

kelloggs-funktown.gif(2007) Advergaming is shifting from online to mobile, so younger kids and parents need a heads-up to spot the spin.

Here’s an updated piece with fresh new links from my last article about kids under eight “gobbling up” interactive marketing. This time we’re talking more about tweens, but it’s amazing to see how early the K-5 set starts toting cell phones:

Is your middle-schooler speed-dialing candy bar ‘cash backs’ from the checkout line? Adding ringtones and wallpaper via bubble gum wrappers?

Text messaging is wildly popular with SMS (short message service) delivering dating tips, chat opportunities, horoscopes, celebrity polls, and…junk food.

Since 55% of U.S. teens and 25% of kids under 12 own mobile phones, online sites and “advergamers” are targeting kids voraciously, linking both channels in tandem whenever possible.

Revenue magazine’s Nov/Dec. 2006 issue cites mobile going mainstream when 50 million American Idol fans voted for their favorite singer in 2005. (I’d clearly be in the ‘who cares’ minority camp, but I just report what I see)

They claim nearly 90% of U.S. brands will be marketing to mobile by 2008. So you might want to think about advergaming’s impact there too.

Cartoon packaging and fast food toys are familiar foes, interactive radio, mobile media, m-commerce and viral are engagingly new.

The U.K’s Children’s Food Campaign is a stellar resource for junk food tactics and advergaming notables, which we’ll be featuring in a separate post on media literacy and interactives. In the U.S., here are just a handful of examples I tapped today:

Kellogg’s Fun K Town™ offers an entire city extravaganza of arcade style games, prizes, pitches and ‘passports’ to brain-branded ‘belonging’ for kids seeking free fun.

Starburst® offers ‘Outbursts’ for text messaging, shows kids how to make jewelry out of the wrappers (hey, at least they’re recycling!) and has a bounty of gadgety games.

The Lunchables® Brigade touts a Treehouse Test Drive, instant walkie talkie promo, and has kids collecting product packaging like the old ‘box top’ days of yore.

Campbell’s ‘Slurptastic’ DJ has kids dressing dancing meatballs (I kid you not) a ‘souped up limo challenge’ (a little toxic bling materialism there) but alas…

I couldn’t find last year’s irresistible “Slurp-n-Burp” game that had kids ‘canning’ soup ingredients for ultra-gross audio e-blasts to belch their way into their buddy’s inbox.

Awww. shucks.

Point is, when brand-building goes interactive, the lines blur further and kids engage fully with the entertainment itself.

Last year, Frito-Lay’s stealthy web clues, cryptic billboards and deciphering challenges intrigued kids to text a specified short code (a 5-digit phone number used by marketers for SMS messaging) without revealing the hype is for Doritos®.

Frito-Lay used both the Internet and texting to support its Doritos Black Pepper Jack rollout. “Texting is the language of Millennials [16- to 24-year-olds] and we wanted to reach them through their language,” said Frito-Lay’s Jared Dougherty in an interview with Promo Magazine.

In addition to SMS trivia games, the Doritos’ Web site featured an instant messaging (IM) interface that let teens unlock hundreds of video and audio clips and games.

No matter how many minor victories are won on the home-front with healthy choices, parents are forced into hyper-vigilance to stave off new tactics undermining good nutrition.

What can you do?

PLAY the online games & lift the layers: My own daughter loved the fantasy world of Neopia on Neopets (so do 70 million others) but when I had to ‘feed my pets’ and clicked on ‘shops’…

…Eureka! A plethora of McDonalds, Reese’s & Cocoa Puffs, Cookie Crisp, Trix, & Lucky Charms advergames, videos and earnable points for repeat visits to more junk food sites!

Now she’s moved onto Club Penguin which is ad free social media for tweens. (story on the chat-social networking side for tweens coming soon)

Lesson? Delve deeper into online fantasy worlds. Critters, fairies and characters populate home pages, but ‘evil forces’ of junk food giants can be embedded within.

Create a ‘spot the spin’ quiz: Ask your child: How does the game make money? Who is sponsoring it? Find the pitch. Is there merchandise sold? How do they entice you to play longer? What contests, give-aways, voting & polling exist? Are there e-cards? Links elsewhere? How much info did they extract?

Is your child media savvy enough to ‘advance to the next level?’ You’d be surprised how smart and fast the young ones catch on if you take the time to show them what to watch for!

See our media literacy tipsheet housed on the Common Sense Media site, called Talking to Kids About Junk Food Marketing. Frank Baker of Media Literacy Clearinghouse teamed with me on this, and I’ve recently translated it to Spanish for our counter-marketing handouts.

Visit the virtual worlds yourself: Engage with the media. Know what you’re buying, and buying into! Teach label literacy with interactive games like PBS Kids Food Tricks. Send kids to SmartMouth to play with Gus and learn the factoids behind the advergaming blitz.

Sound off: Media literacy aside, some parents will read the junk food blitz and say, “whoa, this is NOT okay, we need policy for protection, PERIOD!”

If you’re one of them, go to advocacy sites like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and read the data at sites like Children’s Food Campaign in the U.K. both are leading the way in this arena, making it easy for parent’s voices to be heard.

Potential policy and voluntary solutions are now available for download from the Children’s Now conference which took place in Washington called, “The Future of Children’s Media: Advertising.”

They applaud the Kids’ Digital Television Agreement as do I…but to me, it represents a single M&M in a jumbo 52oz. bag.

As for Shaping Youth’s current counter-marketing efforts, advergaming is clearly an issue with students, (based on the media logs we’re seeing) but the sites and packaging labels of behemoth brands confuse kids as well.

We obviously targeted Capri Sun, but various Coolers, KoolAid and Hi-C made w/a miniscule amount of ‘real fruit juice’ were part of our counter-marketing too.

For example, Minutemaid has some ‘tips & quizzes’ about juices and vitamins on their site, but look closer, they ‘offer a variety of products’ (Hi-C) sponsored by the official sounding “Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness.” (Coca-Cola)

Kids and parents see “Minutemaid” and think ‘healthy’…Our taste tests in our counter-marketing session confirmed this. Caveat emptor, folks.

Always spot the spin, folks; advergaming or otherwise.

After we deconstructed the goopy glop to simulate high fructose corn syrup, ZERO hands went up when we asked kids how many will NOW be packing pouches of sugar water. (nothing like a little peer pressure to make it ‘uncool’ to drink the sugary slop) But I’m not terribly confident just yet. We’ll see…

We’ll be playing our own little reality game as Shaping Youth pops in at random to track ‘outcomes and measures’ of our counter-marketing during lunch time.

Will the ‘take homes’ sent to their parents be ‘taken home’ in actions?

Will parents change what they pack in kids lunches? Are parents even the ones packing the lunches? Will buying patterns shift?

I can’t help but imagine what would happen if pitchsters marketed ONLY healthy food with fun and fancy advergames.

Would kids’ ‘buy into’ a healthier track faster?

I’d sure like to find out.

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