THE BLOG

Junk Food Games are Nauseating, But Where are the Parents?

04/06/2014 12:12 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 10:59 BST

Remember Sunny Delight? I do. As a child of the 90s, I loved its playful branding and attention-wrecking sugar rushes. It looked like happiness in a bottle. It tasted like orange juice as imagined by peddlers of Ritalin.

I loved Wimpy, too. And Opal Fruits. But they were all treats. Rewards. Infrequent indulgences. If I'd had the kind of parents that let me fill my face with burgers and sweets and fizzy drinks every day, there would have been seriously calorific consequences.

But I didn't. So there weren't.

Parents were in short supply in Channel 4's Tricks of the Junk Food Business, though. Instead, the focus was on big brands and digital agencies as the villains in the child obesity story; soulless companies seemingly swimming in greed and high fructose corn syrup.

At the heart of the programme was an intriguing question: is it morally wrong to market unhealthy food products to kids using online games? To investigate the issue, presenter and Telegraph journalist Harry Wallop delved deep into the world of "advergames" - branded apps that blur the line between innocent gameplay and evil advertising.

A typical example of an advergame is Oreo's Twist, Lick, Dunk app. It's basically an exercise in positive reinforcement, awarding kids with virtual achievements for demonstrating how to consume cookies correctly. This uneasy digital-dunking-for-dopamine arrangement is made even more bizarre by Oreo's shameless in-app cross-promotion of the next Transformers movie.

Wallop put forward a pretty damning case against major brands using gamified content marketing to engage kids. Kellogg's. McDonald's. Coco-Cola. No-one was safe from scrutinisation of their Facebook page policies or App Store offerings. Academics were wheeled out to confirm that this all had an effect on child obesity. The verdict was unanimous: brands are exploiting lax online advertising regulations and unenforced social network rules to market junk food to kids.

And what of the creators behind these so-called advergames? The agencies responsible were treated to some unsympathetic undercover reporting; they all seemed to work in ethical vacuums constructed entirely from sugar, and one by one they were caught red-handed dispensing unscrupulous game marketing advice. Wallop's team even invented its own obesity-friendly fruit drink to trick the gamemakers: Orange Beast.

Now, is it questionable for junk food brands to build relationships with young kids through advergames? Yes. Is it problematic that these brands don't admit they're targeting younger children, when they clearly are? Definitely. Could interweb laws surrounding junk food advertising to kids use a little refinement? Probably. And should agencies think a little harder about the subliminal intent and potential consequences of these advergames? Absolutely.

But while 'Tricks of the Junk Food Business' pointed a justifiably judgemental finger at disingenuous food brands and unthinking youth game marketers, there seemed to be another accountable group that was rather conspicuous by their absence.

What of the parents? You know, those grown-ups that have access to all this information. The people that decide what their children eat. The adults who control what games are downloaded to the family iPad. The ones who can monitor how their kids interact with brands on Facebook - if it's even appropriate for them to do so at all.

Parents were pretty much absolved by the Channel 4 expose - if only due to their complete exclusion from the conversation. While the programme highlighted a valid skirmish in the child obesity war, parents were noticeably missing from the battlefield.

Can we really only blame brands and marketers for the growth in child obesity? Does responsibility not also rest with parents? After all, kids don't get fat just from playing junk food advergames - someone needs to buy the actual junk food. And keep on buying it. Day after day. Until their child resembles Augustus Gloop.

As a digital content marketer, I question whether it's fair to solely attack these games - as cynical, calculating and nauseating as they might seem. Arguably, they're just the next phase of shrewd food marketing tactics in a long line of enjoyable brand experiences. If we start banning fun food branding that appeals to kids, where do we draw the line? Maybe it ends with the death of Tony the Tiger, his extinction leaving row upon row of sad Frosties boxes sitting on supermarket shelves like giant unbranded cigarette packets.

That sounds grrrrreat.

Let's face it: kids love unhealthy food products, packaging and toys. They always have; they probably always will. To young, adventure-craving minds, those bright, colourful and fun-looking food brands promise magical experiences - which now just happen to include advergames. Yes, brands and agencies need to think harder about saturating modern families with that sugary magic, but parents and legislators also need to recognise their role in rationing it.

Junk food isn't good for children. Yet there's a place for junk food marketing in childhood.

Now who's up for some SunnyD?