The (Marshmallow) Power of Breakfast Cereal Advergaming
Breakfast cereal marketing, traditionally the domain of the Saturday morning commercial, has taken to the Web in online gaming worlds. In these virtual playgrounds children interact with branded spokes-characters, play digital advergames, and get rewarded for their mastery of commercial content: the stories, messages and meanings used to create brand preference. A close look at these advergaming sites reveals an unhealthy logic in which the most nutritionally poor food items are symbolically most valuable and the consumptive possibilities are endless.
This study looked at two web sites – Frootloops.com and Luckycharms.com – as they existed between 2007 and 2009. With their respective talk of “frooty treasures” and “marshmallow power,” these sites promote cereals as much more than just what’s for breakfast. They are adventure on the high seas, as you become Toucan Sam on a pirate ship hunting for buried (cereal) treasures. They are the fantasy of superhuman powers, as you become Lucky the leprechaun battling an evil centaur with the marshmallow-induced powers of flight or invisibility. In essence, online cereal advergaming offers the player an interactive simulation of the commercial. Much as a flight simulator trains pilots how to fly, these advergaming sites train child consumers how to think about food.
At Frootloops.com, players have one goal: to locate what is referred to over and over again as “fruity treasure,” the Froot Loops hidden in treasure chests and golden chalices by Black Beak the Pirate and sought after by Toucan Sam. Play on the Frootloops site closely mirrors the adventure narrative found in the site’s “Swashbuckling Clips,” a series of 30-second television commercials promoting such limited-time products as Froot Loops with Starberries or Froot Loops Smoothie cereal. As each product was released, a new commercial was added to the site along with a new island that players could visit to play product-related games. At Luckycharms.com players accompany spokescharacter Lucky the leprechaun on an adventure featured in “Lucky’s Webisodes,” a series of ten videos, each two minutes in length, detailing Lucky’s efforts to save the leprechauns from a “Dark Force” that has inhabited the “Magical Realm.” Players can visit such destinations as “Charmhenge” (think Stonehenge made of charms) where simplistic games train players how to use the magical properties of the charms.
As training spaces, these two web sites use a narrative framework (the “Swashbuckling Clips” and “Lucky’s Webisodes”) to structure play; they also test a player’s knowledge of the marketing stories and their meanings. On Frootloops.com a quiz assesses the player’s knowledge of advertising content with such questions as “What did the Froot Loops attract on the way to Glitter Island?” and “What was Black Beak after?” The quiz even coaches players to “Watch Swashbuckling Clips if you need help.” In this sense, the exam—in addition to establishing what knowledge is valued in the virtual cereal world—serves as motivation to revisit the marketing story and master its content. In the “Forest of Questions” quiz game at Luckycharms.com, some questions measure whether the player knows the magical property of a charm (“Does the heart give Lucky the power of life?”). Other questions assess the player’s knowledge of Lucky’s Webisodes (“Do the gnomes help Lucky in the end?”). Still others involve persuasive claims targeting product consumption (“Can eating breakfast provide energy to play sports?” and “Are Lucky Charms magically delicious?”).
Online cereal play turns the child consumer into a branded commodity as games reward players with public recognition, the pleasure of being seen. Most commonly, such recognition occurs for mastery of a game when players can display their initials on the high score leader board. Some games coax the player to make his/her score available to others by email with the taunting text “Think you know a friend who can beat it?” One game, Lucky’s Magic Movie Maker, allows players to create and publicly display movies from short pre-packaged video clips drawn from Lucky’s Webisodes. To display a movie, a player must first join the Director’s Club, a process requiring the player to create an account and provide such information as favorite charm, favorite game on Luckycharms.com, and favorite Webisode installment. The player is then given a user name made from his/her first name followed by his/her favorite charm (NicoleMoon96), a symbolic connection of child to product. Such games ask the child player to both produce a commodity and to become a commodity through the public spectacle of displaying one’s creative labor under a charm-laden pseudonym, making that symbolic connection part of a public performance with its attendant rewards of attention, recognition, and perhaps a (however fleeting) sense of fame.
Both Frootloops.com and Luckycharms.com create potentially unhealthy nutritional understandings. Froot Loops’ marketing relies on talk of “fruit” in order to speak about the pleasures of eating “froot,” what is essentially a chemically flavored-and-dyed high sugar processed food, one that may even displace fruit as a breakfast item. Even though we see images of fruit (the ever-present orange accompanying the bowl of cereal), our Toucans are always and only interested in the loops. This is not surprising, as we are continually reminded that Froot Loops are “thedelicious part of this nutritious breakfast.” (Too bad, orange!) Lucky Charms are power, and not just any power, but magical power. But consider the oxymoronic nature of “marshmallow power.” From a nutritional point of view, a dehydrated and chemically flavored bit of sugar and gelatin is not exactly a “power food.” Indeed, it is the least nutritionally desirable part of Lucky Charms cereal. Yet, within the narrative world of Lucky’s Magical Realm, the magic marshmallow provides the power needed to fight evil centaurs and save lost leprechauns. Such nutritional messages (that “froot” is better than “fruit” or that marshmallows = power) should be viewed as highly problematic in light of rising rates of childhood diet-based diseases like type 2 diabetes. These problematic messages are compounded by games that reward players with points for cereal consumption, creating an imperative to symbolically consume the most cereal possible.
In an earlier era cereal boxes enticed with the promise of a toy, prize, or puzzle of some kind. Today they offer secret codes to open hidden realms in online digital games, drawing the child consumer to an immersive marketing world. Child advocates have long argued that television marketing to children is “unfair” because children cannot always recognize commercial content, even when ads are separated from programming by “ad breaks”. Nor can younger children reliably understand the persuasive intent and impact of the marketing messages they encounter. Online cereal marketing only exacerbates these problems as it attempts to hide its motive with a weak message of “this page may contain a product or promotion advertisement” in small print at the bottom of the screen. However, the true motive to brand child consumers can be seen in the stories and games offered on these sites. This is a dubious form of play that trains the child as consumer, anticipating that moment in the cereal aisle when little hands will reach out for a brightly colored box.