With the advent of the Digital Age, advertisers and their clients have run into a bit of a problem. Because society is now over-saturated with advertisements, those bombarded with them on a regular basis are becoming weary towards the products and those who intend to sell them. It would make sense, then, for advertisers to break away from traditional forms of advertising, such as print or television, and instead present the ads as pieces of culture in their own right. In addition, corporations attempt to target the most susceptible group of potential consumers: children.
Beginning in the 1970s, cultural analysts Thomas Robertson and John R. Rossiter spearheaded studies pertaining to the effects of advertising on children. These children, aged six through eleven, were in the pivotal stage of cognitive development in which advertisements would be at their most persuasive. In order to proceed with their studies, Robertson and Rossiter compiled a list of five basic criteria with regards to the children’s comprehension of these ads (64). Specifically, the researchers analyzed the children’s ability to discriminate between programs and advertisements, recognize external sources, express discrepancies between actual product and advertised products, have awareness of the symbolic nature of advertisements, and appreciate the advertisements’ target audience (65). In order to evaluate these, Robertson and Rossiter measured if children had no understanding of ads, a limited understanding of ads (including their entertainment and aesthetic value), insight about the informative function of advertising, or the abstract ability to comprehend ads and the ways in which they are persuasive (65). Even though Robertson and Rossiter’s study occurred a few decades ago and was used to evaluate children’s reactions to traditional forms of advertisements, these criteria greatly influenced Soontae An, Hyun Seung Jin, and Eun Hae Park’s study of South Korean elementary school children and their perception of non-traditional advertisements, and in particular, advergames.
“Advergames” are interactive games that a company usually places on their website with the hopes of having potential customers spend more time on their site and gain more awareness of the products. They are essentially (as the name hints) advertisements presented as games, the actual purpose of its attempt to sell a product covered up in its playful, time-killing medium. Two examples of advergames are Magnum Ice Cream’s game “Magnum Pleasure Hunt” and Puma’s “Run Puma Run,” both of which are games without much explicit mention of the brand or products aside from the fact that, as a treat, the products as rewards if the player successfully completes the game. In addition, once the game is completed the players are encouraged to share their results on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which helps to promote the companies’ sites and also the products themselves for free. In addition, there are advergames on children’s games sites like Neopets.com which are especially geared toward the mostly young users of the site. These games are listed with all of the regular games and users earn “neopoints” by playing the advergames and the regular ones. The distinction between these two types of games might be clear to older children, but for younger kids who are not as knowledgeable with the sly advertising tactics, it is likely not as obvious.
Though the advertising within these games may be obvious to wary consumers and alienated spectators, the distinction may not be made as easily by less knowledgeable audiences regardless of their previous skepticism towards traditional advertising such as television commercials or print advertisements. This was the notion which initially spurred a 2012 experiment conducted by marketing researchers Soontae An, Hyun Seung Jin, and Eun Hae Park. The researchers designed a study where 129 South Korean children in second and third grade were split up into two equal groups that became the experimental group and the control group (67). In the experimental group the children played an advertising literacy game which schooled them on various advertising aspects and how to recognize them within different media before playing an actual advergame themselves. The control group, however, first played an educational science game in place of the advertising literacy game before proceeding to the same advergame played by the children in the experimental group. Afterwards, the students in both groups filled out questionnaires that assessed their memory retention of the products in the advergame and inquired after their attitudes toward advertisements both in the games and in general (69).
The results of this study were not surprising. The children who were exposed to the advertising literacy game prior to the advergame were much more aware of the advertisements placed throughout the game than the children in the control group. Moreover, the children who saw the advergame as a form of advertising had a more critical view on advertising in general (70). From this study, it is clear that teaching children about how to recognize forms of non-traditional advertisements, in addition to traditional advertisements, is extremely critical. Because of the clutter and over-saturated marketplace, many advertisers are attempting to present their ad campaigns as pieces of culture or entertainment, and this makes it difficult to distinguish advertisements from other media forms, especially for children. It is important, then, to broaden studies of nontraditional advertising in order to remain aware of its effects on the general population as a whole, in addition to children. And though this study was a great start in the ways that children perceive non-traditional advertising, more similar experiments should be done in order to better understand how susceptible audiences interpret these advertisements. This understanding is particularly important because it influences what sort of policies should be taken in order to strengthen children’s cognitive defenses against these new advertising strategies that are being churned out at an increasing rate.
Repetitive education of the past, although essential, is hardly a substantial means to deal with the future. Teaching children, or even the population as a whole, the methods behind traditional advertising while ignoring the increasingly prominent forms of nontraditional advertising is just as harmful as no education at all. Advertising is something that needs to be addressed in its entirety lest it be advertisers playing us in the end.
An Soontae, Hyun Seung Jin, and Eun Hae Park. “Children’s Advertising Literacy for Advergames: Perception of the Game as Advertising.”Journal of Advertising 43.1 (2014): 63-72. Web.