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14 March 2013

How Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers Use the Internet to Target Children

Keywords: Websites, advergames, advertising, brands, characters, games, kids, media, North America, brand characters, computer, content analysis, interactive media, internet, marketing, marketing strategy, product packaging,

The Internet is more and more used by food companies as a marketing tool to target children. A Journal of Health Communication study tried to map the different techniques breakfast cereal manufacturers use to target children online. It appears that marketers of cereal products implement many digital features, such as (adver)games, videos, and quizzes to allure kids. Moreover, website exposure data reveals that children are highly attracted by these engaging features.

Take aways

  • Breakfast cereal manufactures use a wide variety of digital techniques to target children online, such as (adver)games, videos, quizzes, sweepstakes for online prizes, and branded spokes-characters. 
  • Cereal websites that offer many of these engaging features attract more children for a longer time period than websites with fewer features, thereby increasing children’s brand exposure.
  • Efforts should be made to look more critically at the highly engaging digital techniques cereal manufacturers use to target children online. Especially because those cereals are mostly advertised for as being a healthy breakfast, while most of them contain lots of sugar.

Study information

  • The question?

    What are the digital techniques breakfast cereal manufacturers use to target children online, and how successful are they?

  • Who?

    A total of 452 web pages belonging to 17 child-directed cereal websites during March 2009

  • Where?

    United States

  • How?

    All 17 cereal websites were coded for its level of immersion (whether children will be ‘soaked up’ in the site), the number of pages, its interactive features (e.g., games, videos, promotions), and the engagement techniques used. Three levels were distinguished: low-immersion websites with very few pages and little interactive content, medium-immersion sites with multiple pages and a greater amount of interactive content, and high-immersion sites with many pages and lots of interactive content, and information gathering techniques. The web pages of the collected websites were analyzed on the included features (e.g., games, videos, quizzes), the branding (e.g., spokes-characters, product’s package), the representation of the product, and the presented health claims. To test whether children spend more time on sites with higher levels of immersion, website exposure data were gathered via the comScore Media Metrix Key Measures Report.

Facts and findings

  • Breakfast cereal manufactures used different digital techniques to target children online:
    • Almost all child-directed cereal websites (14 out of 17) contained games (165 in total), of which almost three quarter (67%) were advergames (i.e., branded mini games). 
    • More than half (10 out of 17) of the cereal websites contained videos (52 in total), including 10 TV commercials, and 35 webisodes (i.e., animated serials with branded spokes-characters) .
    • These (adver)games and videos included different brand-promoting features, such as branded food items, product packages, brand logos, and branded spokes-characters, such as Toucan Sam for Froot Loops).
    • Almost half (8 out of 17) of the cereal websites contained promotions, such as cross-promotions (i.e., agreements to promote other companies’ products as well), licensed characters, and lotteries and contests for online prizes.
    • Almost all (15 out of 17) of the cereal websites used information gathering and personalization techniques, such as polls and quizzes, opportunities to register, and invitations to share the online experience with a friend (viral technique).
  • A sites’ level of immersion appeared to be an indicator for children’s engagement:
    • Sites with lots of pages, interactive features, and engagement techniques (high-immersion sites), like and, were more often visited by children, than low-immersion sites and medium-immersion sites. 
    • The amount of time children spend on those high-immersion sites was also much longer, than time spend on lower immersion sites.