LONDON/PERTH: Food and drinks companies have been accused of exploiting a regulatory loophole to promote unhealthy products to children via online games which include advertising.

Researchers at the UK's University of Bath said that such "advergames" were widely used to market items high in salt, sugar and fat and since the advertising of such products was banned around children's TV programmes, the companies involved were taking advantage of a legal ambiguity.

The study questioned the ethics of advergaming, arguing that "children as old as 15 do not recognise advergames as adverts, and are influenced by them without their conscious awareness".

Dr Haiming Hang, one of the report's authors and a senior lecturer in marketing at the university, told the BBC: "After playing advergames for 10 to 15 minutes, children's brand preference, or even eating habits, can be changed."

Separate research undertaken in Australia found that advergames were as effective as 30-second TV slots and could operate as viable replacements. Dr Steve Bellman, of the Murdoch University's Audience Labs, had a more relaxed view than his Bath counterpart.

"New technology in the form of online television is opening up a range of new interactive possibilities for advertisers, so it's good to explore how companies can move beyond the traditional models to connect with customers," he told "And if this leads to increased enjoyment for viewers, everyone wins."

Across Europe, children see far less food advertising on TV than before, according to the World Federation of Advertisers. Its research showed that children were now exposed to 31% fewer ads for EU pledge products – a commitment by large food companies to change the products they advertise to under-12s – on TV across all programming.

The Bath report said, however, that such pledges were ineffective when it came to advergames and were meant to "appear to meet public needs but in reality may be more accurately described as attempts to deflect attention and quiet the industry's critics".

Data sourced from BBC, University of Bath, Murdoch University,, WFA; additional content by Warc staff