05/08/2014 05:59 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Study Shows Food Advergames Entice Kids to Overeat

Jessica Key via Getty Images

Weirdly enough, health professionals need to prove time and time again that ads promoting junk food actually affect kids' intake of these foods. A Super Bowl ad costs 4 million dollars for just 30 seconds of airtime, so clearly someone has already looked at their worth, yet many believe -- or want to believe -- that ads don't impact their kids.

Ads can't be blamed for the obesity epidemic of course, but despite some recent progress, food commercials support mostly energy-dense foods, high in sugar fat and salt -- those we're advised to eat less of -- and contribute to overeating. Several years ago the Institute of Medicine reviewed the scientific literature and found that ads influence kids' preferences, purchases and short-term consumption, may contribute to less healthful diets, create an environment that puts kids' health at risk, and that ads and marketing messages reach kids through a wide variety of new media, and are present almost everywhere they go.

And the data keeps piling up.

Who's most susceptible to ads?

In a new study  published online ahead of print in Pediatrics, 261 seconds and third graders played an advergame -- a video game created to advertise, almost identical to those designed by food companies -- that promoted either energy-dense snacks or toys. The game was a memory game with 16 cards on which brands and products were featured. While playing, the kids could reach out to two bowls of snacks, one with jelly candy, the other with milk chocolate candy shells.

Not surprisingly kids who played the advergame with the snack foods ate significantly more snacks: on average they ate 50 percent more than the kids who played the game that had no food cards!

In some of the test conditions the kids were told that although they can eat as much as they want, if they ate nothing they'll get a reward. That seemed to work: overall kids that played the snack-foods game reduced their snacking by half when promised a different reward. 

But here's the most interesting part: Impulsive children among the group were identified through a computer test that checked for kids' ability to control behavior. While these kids did not eat more than less impulsive kids when playing the snack-food game, they did have a harder time refraining from eating when they were promised a reward for not eating -- they practically ate about the same.

Parents are the antidote

We're all quite impulsive when it comes to food, and even more so when it comes to high-reward foods. Long-term benefits pale compared to the instinct to satisfy momentary cravings. Kids are even more vulnerable, and this study shows that kids with higher impulsivity are a great target audience for advertisers. All the more reason to try and limit kids' exposure to these ads.

But parents can reduce the effectiveness of advertising -- in just the same way the authors of this study did -- and train kids to ignore and self-regulate snacking.  I'm not suggesting a reward for not snacking, but rather a rational explanation of the long-term consequences of mindless eating. This study showed that telling kids to ignore the underlying message-to-snack works -- at least for the kids that are less impulsive.

The other great trick -- don't have these snacks at home. The cue in the ad triggers eating a snack, but in its absence the cycle is broken. You can also offer a replacement and place it in a tactical position. When the desire to munch hits, kids will reach for some carrots or apples in the bowl right nearby.

Dr. Ayala