Advertisements masked as free online games are making your children obese

After the game, let’s get some candy.
After the game, let’s get some candy.
Image: EPA/Kimimasa Mayama
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Take two groups of children. Let one group play a video game that features a candy advertisement, and let another watch something neutral. Then offer both groups candy. It should come as no surprise that the former group took more candy than the latter. Advertising works.

What is surprising is that every day millions of children are undergoing this experiment. At least once a week, more than two-thirds of children in primary schools in developed countries play a computer game that is nothing more than an advertisement. And the trouble is that less than one in ten of them are aware that the games features any advertising.

Now Frans Folkvord of Radboud University in the Netherlands is calling for a ban on such advertising. In a systematic review published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Folkvord and his colleagues find that advertising is one of the causes behind the increase in childhood obesity. In the US, for instance, more than twice as many 6- to 11-year-olds are obese today as they were in 1980.

Children are a prime target for advertising, not just by those who want to make them want things now but also by those who want to increase brand loyalty. Even though children may not be in the position to make direct purchases now, their consumption is only going to increase as they grow up. And, if caught early enough, these impressionable minds can become great brand ambassadors.

In a separate study, Folkvord offered children apple or candy after playing a video game involving food. He found that it didn’t matter whether the game was about candies or fruits, those who played the game chose to eat more candy than children in control conditions. Worse still, two years later, those children who chose to take candy had far higher body-mass index—a measure of body fat—than those who chose to eat an apple.

Folkvord found that, even though companies in the European Union had promised to change how they advertise to children as far back as 2007, nothing came of it. “That is all the more reason to advocate a ban,” he says.

And he is not alone. In August, other health experts and Foodwatch, a consumer rights group, found that food companies are almost exclusively advertising foods to children that fall outside World Health Organization’s nutritional criteria. Their response, too, has been to call for a comprehensive ban on advertising of unhealthy foods.