Een on a modest computer, the revving of the virtual racing car's engine stirs anticipation. The car, low-slung and rendered for speed, glistens under a digitally created sky that is forever high noon.
It's the online computer game Dodge Speedway. With the click of a mouse, a player is behind the wheel and joining other racers jostling their way around a skid-scarred track to a throbbing soundtrack of techno music.
The game, available at Microsoft's game site, MSN Gaming Zone (zone.msn.com/speedway), is free and entertaining.
It is also an advertisement. The car, a replica of the real ones Dodge sponsors in real NASCAR races, is plastered with the automobile maker's name and logo. And every advertisement seen along the track's walls and billboards is for Dodge cars.
Dodge Speedway is one of a new genre of computer games as advertising vehicles.
Born of desperation and ingenuity, "advergames," as they are called by marketers, are emerging at a time when Web surfers largely ignore more conventional forms of advertising.
The games, ranging from simple, two-minute diversions to more sophisticated and addictive Web-based fare, help hawk everything from dandruff shampoo to big-budget movies. Some subject players to a kind of saturation bombing of brand names and product messages.
Others offer more subtle messages, akin to the product placement that is prevalent in movies these days.
Some games even permit advertisers to monitor players without their knowledge, tracking how long they play and what choices they make in the games. For instance, carmakers may want to know what makes, models and colors of cars players choose to race, ad-game developers said.
Already, games are available featuring products from major companies like Ford, Radio Shack, General Motors, Toyota, Proctor & Gamble and Sony Entertainment. Some games, like Dodge Raceway, are easily available on major gaming sites like Microsoft's Gaming Zone, mixed in, without any special notice, with conventional games.
Some advergames are also placed on the official sites of the products and services they are advertising. And consumers can expect to see more, lots more, experts say.
Many of the new games are viral, meaning that they permit players to spread the games by e-mail to friends. Some of the games are part of larger television advertising campaigns, urging television viewers to go online and online surfers to watch television. And there are tournaments and sweepstakes as additional inducements to play.
"Using games this way allows advertisers to do a number of things, like get a deeper commercial experience with the consumer," said Pat Keane, a senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet research firm.
Consumers who play these games, Keane said, "are spending a number of moments with it, getting more than a fleeting message."
But these games are setting off alarms among some critics.
Beverly Goldberg, vice president of the Century Foundation, a New York research organization, and author of Overcoming High-Tech Anxiety: Thriving in a Wired World, said the games, while appearing harmless, may more easily slip under parents' radar and overexpose unsuspecting young people to commercial messages.
Goldberg said that the new games may also add to the general sense that advertising is ever more pervasive, creeping into movie theaters, automatic teller machines, waiting lines at fast-food restaurants, even jumbo television sets looming large over the public square.