Parents beware! It’s not just a game — it’s finely tuned brand integration system designed to generate more frequent and more piercing purchase requests in grocery store aisles.

Advergaming — online games that feature brand elements, like slogans, colors, packaging and characters — are the latest tactic in a decades long campaign to attract kids, some of the most vocal and insistent influencers in the market place. From Skittles to Fruit Loops, new media marketers are urging children to score points, guide characters through mazes and solves mysteries –­ all while surrounded by brand touch points.

In a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a staggering 97 percent of the 500 advergames analyzed included at least one brand element on every screen of the game. Two-thirds of the games were described as “inundated” with brand identifiers, prompting the study’s author to note a child who plays the game to the terminus is essentially immersed in a sea of brand and product stimuli.

The impact of this extended interaction remains a hotly contested topic. While proponents dote on the relative innocuous nature of the games and underscore the lack of a direct sales pitch, family and consumer advocate groups maintain the depth and length of the connection forged during game play could unfairly leverage a child’s lack of a sophisticated message filtration system.

 Few, if any, of the advergaming sites included in the Kaiser study forwarded a blatant sales appeal. As suggested earlier, these games are about forging a lasting brand relationship with the targeted segment. Attention is the commodity on the block with these games, not actual sales, according to Samantha Skey, spokesperson for Alloy Media, a company that specializes in marketing to children. Skey added television affords about 30 seconds for a company to initiate and solidify a relationship with the viewer; advergames can be as long as 30 minutes, giving a company 60 times the opportunity to forge such relationships.

Companies that seek to leverage a child’s role as purchase decision influencer tread perilously close to taking advantage of the segment’s underdeveloped message filtration system. The real problem is no two parents or two marketing professionals are likely to agree on the break of that line. However, extremists on both ends of the spectrum should be shunted closer to the middle.

Marketing professionals who espouse an open-ended approach to youth marketing are ignoring the obvious disadvantages of their target audience. Children are not equipped to screen exaggerated benefits claims nor have they defined themselves enough to dismiss wild aspiration appeals. In short, they are kids and take messages and appeals at face value. Failing to acknowledge this fact and act accordingly is irresponsible marketing.
Equally irresponsible are advocate groups who propose an “ad-free” childhood. Marketing messages are part of life, ignoring them leaves the child woefully unprepared to handle the deluge that follows after the blinders are removed.

Final Bark
As marketing professionals flesh out new, more personal and more interactive means of addressing difficult to reach audiences like children, the peril of fielding these tactics lies not in the ultimate success or failure of the measure ­ this can be easily gauged in testing, but rather with the parents and child advocacy groups. In short, reaching the children may prove to be the easiest part of this equation, sidestepping a public backlash from frustrated parents and irate advocates will be the highest hurdle to clear. The influence of existing and potential backlash can already be found in the modern advergaming atmosphere.