Advergame: Friend or Foe?
"Mommy, can we buy Stouffer's mac & cheese?" comes the urgent request from the little man in the next room.
"Oh, yeah. I mean... Mommy, can we buy Stouffer's mac & cheese... please?" comes the properly-formatted request from the little man in the next room.
"Because they use 100% real cheese!" comes the reply (no doubt followed by a silent "duh!").
"Oh. We'll see."
As all parents know, children are the dream target of many a marketing message, because they have not yet become jaded about advertising, and in fact, don't always recognize it when they see it. Or put another way, their bullshit detectors are still being assembled.
Over the past few years, companies have been taking advantage of a new and growing medium for their advertising messages - games. This phenomenon is called Advergaming. According to Wikipedia:
Advergaming is the practice of using games, particularly computer games, to advertise or promote a product, organization or viewpoint.
Advergaming takes several forms. For the purposes of this column, though, I won't be dealing with 1) in-game advertising (like the infamous Subway ads that were placed in Counter-Strike for several weeks), or 2) games like America's Army, a full-length console video game commisioned by the U.S. Army in order to immerse the player into all of Army culture, as opposed to combat alone.
Instead, I'll be focusing on games that companies put on their websites in order to attract potential customers. Often, though not always, the product itself is the character, or the treasure at the end - the very object of the game.
As I wrote in my first Dad's Take column, as well as my first GameFam post, it took a while before my kids and I started playing console games together. And although games for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube (not the Xbox) take up the majority of our joint gaming sessions these days, early on, advergames comprised a much larger percentage.
Here is a short list of some of the advergames my kids and I have enjoyed together over the past few years. This list is far from comprehensive, as it merely reflects the ones we've played and enjoyed most. If you're looking to stay abreast of the latest in advergaming, Water Cooler Games regularly writes about that very subject.
- Wonka.com Game Central has a big list of games, but the Laffy Taffy 3D Pyramid Challenge was my kids' favorite. Explore a maze inside an old pyramid. Find flavor-themed keys to unlock corresponding doors. Collect pellets to power your all-important flashlight. Use ropes and secret codes to cross open spaces. But watch out for the big burping red guys!
- Barbie. Ugh. Don't get me started on Barbie. It's enough already with Barbie. But what are ya gonna do? My daughter loves it, and she like to play some of the games on this site.
- Ice Age. We found this site (based on the 2002 film) a few years ago, and my kids loved it. You find games by exploring several screen-sized levels. The games are well-made and fun. Some of their favorites are Whack-a-Skrat, where you can bludgeon Skrat with a fish, and Ice Track Derby, where kids can create their own tracks and then race on them as characters from the movie.
- Wrigley's CandyStand / NabiscoWorld Games. Although these two websites are owned by two separate companies, they were both owned by Kraft when they were created, hence the striking similarities. Each site has a huge selection of games, some more fun than others. But everyone should be able to find something fun to play. My kids loved the mini-golf games, my son loved the Sumo wrestler-themed sandwich cookie battle, and my daughter's favorite is the Sims-esque Chips Ahoy! Fun Room Designer.
- Too many television-based games to count. Some of the best are:
On the bottom of the NabiscoWorld Games page, Kraft has put the following message:
Hi kids, when you see "Ad Break" it means you are viewing a commercial message designed to sell you something. Remember, if you are under 18 years old, you should get a parent's permission before you submit any information about yourself or try to buy anything online.
Well, there's a nice little bit of irony for ya. While it's nice to see that Kraft warns kids not to submit information by themselves, Kraft is well aware that the messages flagged as "Ad Breaks" are far from the only...what was it?... "commercial message designed to sell you something" made on these advergaming sites. By definition, every one of these games is designed to increase the brand equity of and loyalty to the product in children.
Marketers know that people buy products not only because of how they taste (or look, or sound, or mow, or copy, or... widgetize...), but because of how it makes them feel - the bundle of emotions associated with every brand.
To improve brand image among kids, companies use things like fun packaging and fun commercials. But unlike those fun commercials, which interrupt the chosen leisure activity of watching TV, advergames are the leisure activity itself.
So the next time your kids spot a familiar package on the lower shelves in the supermarket, the advergame provider hopes that that they will exclaim, "Daddy! that's the candy from that maze game! Can we get it, Daddy?!"
"Oh, yeah. I mean... can we please get it, Daddy?"
It's all too easy to throw out the "gaming" baby with the "adver" bathwater (yes, that's horribly, horribly written, but you get my point), but especially if your family has a limited gaming budget (which, I assume, are 99.4% of the families out there), you're missing out if you dismiss all advergames out of hand. You just need to be there to filter the marketing messages your kids receive in game form. As with anything that touches the lives of children, the key is active parental involvement.
You know what they say: Keep your friends close, and your advergames closer.