Junk Food Brands Target Kids with Mobile Games

A few short years ago, the concept of advertising in video games would have seemed a little ridiculous. But now these sorts of in-game promos are everywhere—and with good reason. Some of the most popular downloadable games for young kids are nothing but interactive candy ads.

Today’s tikes spend more time playing games than they do watching TV, so apps like “Cookie Dough Bites Factory” and “Icee Maker” are extremely effective ways to familiarize them with brands. Snack food makers are jumping all over the opportunity, of course.

As The Wall Street Journal puts it, these kids “can master the largely intuitive touch screens well before they read.” Get ready, young parents: Your little treasure’s first words may well be “I want a Super Pretzel.”

37% of kids aged 4-5 use mobile touchscreen devices at home, and a significant number of slightly older children carry smartphones. The inevitable follow-up question: Do we need to regulate the amount of advertising that comes their way? And how does one define advertising in this context?

Of course, candy and cookies aren’t the only products that can be promoted in popular games. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first politician to place his ads in popular EA Sports titles like “Madden 09,” and he’s never been one to abandon a successful strategy, so he’s doing it again this year. The difference? Kids old enough to play “Madden” already have some knowledge of the president, while 4-year-olds can’t be be trusted to develop informed opinions about cookie dough and Slurpees.

Do these mobile games represent a wide-open gateway to new profits for junk food makers, or should the FTC limit the power the companies have to advertise in the free gaming sphere? We can’t imagine the current congress passing anything that even vaguely resembles new regulation, but if agencies can monitor promos on TV, why can’t they do it on iPhones? And if parents download the apps for their kids, are all bets off?

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.