Media General Buys ‘Advergaming’ Business

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By: STEPHANIE STOUGHTON, AP BUSINESS WRITER

(AP) As the cartoon kids blow gum bubbles, they begin floating away on your computer screen. With a series of speedy mouseclicks, you must prick the bubbles before the children fly over a rainbow.

This is far from an elaborate Internet computer game. But the so-called advergame — a cross between a game and marketing — is clearly effective marketing for Skittles’ new bubblegum. Since last summer, more than 840,000 games have been played on Skittles’ Web site, all the while introducing — and reintroducing — the name of the brand’s latest product.

Now Media General Inc., better known for traditional media holdings like The Tampa Tribune and Richmond Times-Dispatch, is diving into this emerging business. In July, the company announced its acquisition of Blockdot Inc., the creator of the Skittles “Pop It!” game and an advergaming pioneer. Details of the transaction, as well as financial information about Dallas-based Blockdot, were not disclosed.

Eventually, Richmond-based Media General may use Blockdot’s capabilities to help boost advertising revenue at its newspapers’ and television stations’ Internet sites.

“This is simply a way to let advertisers reach a demographic and interact with them,” said Neal F. Fondren, president of Media General’s interactive-media division.

Proponents say advergames are clearly winning over advertising clients — and for good reasons. The ads can boost brand awareness, create a database of information about users and draw people who ordinarily might skip over Web site ads — and all for a modest price.

“I think a lot of advertisers are looking at interactive marketing with a lot more excited approach,” said Rob Runett, director of electronic media communications at the Newspaper Association of America.

Yankee Group analyst Michael Goodman has estimated the size of the advergaming market — those games built around a specific product or brand — at $83.6 million in 2004. But he expects it to exceed $250 million in 2008.

Among the adopters is the U.S. Army, which has lured millions of people to its site, www.americasarmy.com, to play war games. And while you’re there, feel free to contact your local recruiter or link to a store where you can buy a HOOAH! ceramic mug.

In the media industry, Sandusky Newspapers Inc., based in Sandusky, Ohio, has created an online golf game on two newspaper sites — the Sandusky Register and Norwalk (Ohio) Reflector — that were modeled after a video game.

In the “Par 3 Shootout,” site visitors play a game that actually looks like the holes at nine local golf courses, with the key advertiser’s name receiving title treatment. Those with the highest weekly scores then get to play on the real golf courses for a chance to win $1,000.

Critics say the games appear to directly target children, and parents should be aware that information might be collected about their kids or their households. (Some analysts and advergaming proponents say it’s actually middle-age adults who appear to be playing online games in large numbers.)

Still, David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, says media companies like Media General should take even more precautions, as they risk blurring the lines between advertising and news content.

Media General’s Fondren said the company has been careful to “distinguish between what is news and what is advertising.”

“It requires discipline,” he said.

Although Media General typically focuses on traditional media, it is no stranger to gaming. In 2002, it purchased Boxerjam, which makes games, game shows, and puzzles that can be played on the Internet, wireless devices, and interactive television.

Boxerjam’s games tend to be more sophisticated than Blockdot’s, so they may eventually be used for advergames, too, Fondren said.

Founded in 2001, Blockdot’s clients have included high-profile clients like AT&T, General Motors, and RadioShack.

Although the small company’s name isn’t particularly well known, its gaming site, Kewlbox.com, is popular with online gamers. And even non-gamers might be familiar with the company’s famous and since-sold Internet game, Elf Bowling, which was originally released in the late ’90s and became a holiday hit.

“It’s still my favorite,” said Fondren.

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