Welcome to Exploration Station, the brightly colored online pad of Chester Cheetah, the cartoon character of Cheetos snack food. Click on his giant screen TV to play “gametoons,” roll over his arcade table to play more games, select his funky skate board to download computer wallpaper, screensavers or e-cards. And if you click on the flip-flop sporting robot, you can view television ads for Cheetos as many times as you like.
Parents, meet the latest in food marketing to children. Aware that kids are becoming Web savvy at younger ages, marketers are putting the media to use, exposing children to their products' brands, images, characters and logos via sites loaded with kid-friendly graphics and sounds.
Concerned about the high rates of childhood obesity, policymakers are looking at possible reasons for the rise, including advertising food to children. Until now they lacked hard data about online food marketing. But this summer, in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, Elizabeth Moore, Notre Dame Associate Professor of Marketing, released the first study of online food marketing to children.
Moore and her team of five student researchers examined 4,000 Web pages on 77 sites, which received more than 12.2 million visits by children ages 2 to 11 in the second quarter of 2005. The findings showed that the online presence goes much deeper than TV food ads geared to kids and further blurs the line between advertising and entertainment.
“When a child goes to the Internet, this is by definition an interactive process,” Moore said. “So the nature of the experience is much more engaging and may last for several minutes.”
Moore 's study revealed that almost three out of four sites included “advergames,” online games in which the food company's product or brand characters are featured. Sixty-four percent of the sites use viral marketing techniques, encouraging kids to send their friends an e-card or e-mail about the product. Just over half featured TV ads available for viewing.