In a society increasingly inundated with digital technology, children in the Netherlands learn from a very young age how to use new information and communication technologies (ICTs). These technologies offer them ways to play, learn, explore and develop their sense of identity, as well as interact and communicate with adults and peers. Children spend ever more time in front of computer and mobile screens with gaming as one of their favourite activities. One type of game many children enjoy playing are online casual or mini games. These short, ‘free’ and easy to learn games have friendly designs with bright colours and fun tasks to perform, and are developed to entertain, educate or deliver a particular commercial message. This paper focuses on the latter ‘advertisement as game’ that is developed around a particular brand or product and which can be described as an ‘advergame’.
Advergames are used by companies to build brand awareness, prolong contact time, stimulate product purchase and consumption, drive traffic to a brand’s website, generate consumer data and build and expand digital profiles of consumers. Especially when played by children, these advergames can be considered to be problematic and controversial, as they are seen to exploit children by taking advantage of their state of psycho-social development and by integrating unseen technological features. They bring together several issues related to identity, consumption, marketing, profiling and datamining. Using insights from surveillance studies, science and technology studies, (sociological) studies of identity construction in relation to ICTs, and studies on children and consumption, this paper will analyse several advergames targeted to Dutch children. It examines how this new form of marketing communication fits into corporate objectives and why this can be considered controversial with children.
First, advergames will be examined against a discourse that suggest that it is immoral to economically exploit children; that children are considered vulnerable and it is inappropriate to take advantage of this vulnerability by using sophisticated marketing strategies on them. As children’s cognitive skills are not yet fully developed and they have little life experience, their ability to interpret and assess commercial messages is limited. This makes persuasive strategies unethical as children are still in the process of distinguish messages and unable to make choices that would protect themselves from certain forms of marketing manipulation (Moore 2004; see also Buijzen and Valkenburg 2003).Research has shown that children find it difficult to distinguish between advertising and editorial content in online environments (Nielsen 2002; Mijn Kind Online 2008). There is also an increasing lack of parental supervision in children’s use of the internet (Qrius 2007). This implies that many children are on their own when it comes to identifying commercial content online and developing digital information skills. Codes of conduct such as the Dutch Advertising Code prescribes that the distinction between advertising and editorial content should always be made recognizable. However, when it comes to advergames, this distinction is not made explicit in any way, making it a very difficult task for children to discriminate between an advertisement and entertainment in these ‘seamless environments’ (Moore 2004).
Arguably, this is part of a marketing strategy. Eliminating the recognition or identification of the commercial message and marketer practitioners’ intentions and tactics fits the strategy of ‘kidsmarketing’ to tailor messages, design products, packages, websites and advertisements in a way that appeals to childrens’ ‘wants and needs’, and are identifiable to them, with ‘play and fun’ at its core (Cook 2010). Advergames appear to be the ultimate form of this ‘play and fun’ approach; a ‘masquerade’, where marketer practitioners hide behind a screen full of play and fun, allowing them to reach their own commercial goals in the meantime. More specifically, while advergames may be seen as an opportunity to play something fun for free, children remain unaware of the commercial intent and manipulation behind the (adver)game that can be seen to mediate and even transform their play, their sense of self and their understanding of the world around them. Not only they are offered what they ‘want and need’ following the viewpoint of the marketer practitioner, what they ‘want and need’ appears to be produced by this very same strategy.
Second, in order to reach corporate goals such as building brand awareness, stimulating consumption, and generating consumer data, certain features are designed into advergames and will be taken into account. A study on children and advergames shows that many of these advergames include features to encourage children in repeat play and product purchase by offering such things as multiple game levels, public displays of high scores and game tips within product packages (Moore 2006). Another study indicated that there is a relationship between the capacity of the advergame to induce a state of flow, a mental state of subjective absorption within an activity, and a change in the buying behaviour of (in this specific case adult) players (Gurau 2008). Advergame research also shows how some of these games include product related polls or quizzes, offering valuable information for market research on children’s habits and preferences (Moore 2006; Grimes 2008). They may also encourage players to register and share their gaming experience with friends or family, collecting personal identifiable information (Gurau 2008). Combined with an analysis of in-game-behaviour and activities, marketers are able to construct detailed consumer profiles, based on the aggregation of these behavioural and demographic data (Grimes 2008; Chung & Grimes 2005). Through this, advergames can be described as ‘electronic surveillance devices’, as they enable a new form of tracking children’s activities. In addition, studies on online communities for children and advertising discuss marketers using immersive advertising campaigns such as advergames, encouraging children to play with particular products, enabling them at a later point in time to identify the brand (Grimes & Shade 2005), and to create a ‘personal relationship’ with the product (Steeves 2006). They teach children to trust brands, consider them their friends, not only recommending products, but becoming ‘role models for the child to emulate, in effect embedding the product right into a child’s identity’ (Steeves 2006).
Chung, G. & Grimes, S. (2005) ‘Data Mining the Kids: Surveillance and Market Research Strategies in Children’s Online Games’, Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 30, no.4, pp. 527-548.