CAMPAIGNS: CDC's VERB fosters a more active role for kids

The CDC's VERB fitness-promotion initiative did not just specifically target tweens of all ethnic groups, it involved kids in the marketing efforts, as well.

The CDC's VERB fitness-promotion initiative did not just specifically target tweens of all ethnic groups, it involved kids in the marketing efforts, as well.

With obesity costing the US $117 billion a year in medical expenses, Congress decided to allocate funds for a campaign aimed at getting children off the couch and into some fresh air. Knowing that more and more children were content to sit in front of the TV or computer, Congress charged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with the job of developing a campaign that not only encouraged healthier lifestyles for tweens - kids between the ages of 9 and 13 - but actually motivated them to engage in healthier activities, and leave TV shows and video games behind. "Congress wanted us to address these health issues," says Bill Wood, who led the CDC's campaign. "Tweens' sedentary behavior was leading to serious weight issues. But if you spend any time with tweens, they'll tell you that they don't want to hear negative messages. They don't want to be told what they can't do. They want positive messages about what they can do." Strategy Understanding that childhood obesity knows no boundaries, the CDC decided to make the campaign multicultural. While mainstream ads, promotions, and PR were handled by Publicis Groupe, the CDC hired PFI Marketing to handle outreach to black communities, A Partnership to oversee messaging to Asian Americans, G&G Advertising for the American-Indian community, and Garcia 360 for Latino advertising. Garcia subcontracted the PR component to Euro RSCG Magnet. The CDC decided to name the campaign VERB because it represented action. But VERB also represented unending possibilities, so that tweens could pick any activity they wanted. The VERB campaign not only focused on the importance of physical activity, but also on the freedom of tweens to discover physical activities that are fun and that they want to do. "The average tween spends four-and-a-half hours in front of the TV, playing video games, or using the internet," says Wood. "They spend a lot of time being inactive. Public health organizations typically do PSAs. They don't do paid media or other kinds of outreach. This was a brand new strategy." And perhaps most important, the campaign involved tweens in the development of messages and marketing materials. The CDC went beyond just translating the messages for each ethnic group. It also worked with the various agencies to determine how each ethnic group regards physical activity, using that insight to develop the best ways to motivate children and educate parents. VERB also extensively tested messages with kids and parents in each ethnic group, with children providing so much input and feedback that VERB eventually became a campaign "by children for children," says Wood. Tactics While tactics varied depending on the firm, the main goal was to ensure that tweens and everyone from parents to teachers knew about the effort. The CDC helped develop the VERBnow.com and VERBparents.com multilingual websites, with activities, games, tips, and other resources. The campaign developed advertising, marketing, and PR in seven languages. And the various agencies also used a combination of events, advertising, media relations, partnerships, and other community outreach to position VERB as a valuable source of information for parents and other adults seeking advice on physical activity for children. Also key was the development of events that not only encouraged children to become more active, but also to be more active with their friends and family. Publicis Groupe, in addition to ads and media relations, set up events that motivated kids to get active, such as an event that tried to set a record for the most people dribbling basketballs. And the other agencies also orchestrated events and reached out to media and community influencers in their respective ethnic communities. "We know children are very savvy at this age," says Lauren Russ, a senior principal with Publicis Dialog. "They are making decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. So we had to make this campaign about them making decisions. They are the ones who have to make the decision about the physical activities they want to do." Results As the campaign is in the midst of its second year, surveys show that 74% of children nationwide and 84% of kids in key markets know about the VERB brand and consider it a part of their active lifestyle. The CDC's initial goal was to have about 50% of tweens nationwide knowledgeable of the initiative, says Wood. Other surveys show that since the VERB campaign started, there has been a 34% increase in the weekly free-time physical activity among tweens in the US. Girls increased their physical activity by 27%, and 6 million kids from lower- to middle-income families increased activity by 25%. The number of least active tweens dropped by 33%, while the number of least active girls decreased by 37%. And from lower- to middle-income families, the number of least active tweens decreased by 38%. "This has worked so well because it was a campaign for kids by kids," says Wood. "We were everywhere kids were. We surrounded tweens everywhere they went. We had street teams out. We had viral PR efforts. We had community partnerships. And it was all about creating something fun and cool. These kids don't want another poster on the school wall. So we go in and work so there is excitement at the schools. The scope of this was just so large, and thanks to the work of the agencies, we were able to reach and involve children everywhere." Future Only the second year into a five-year campaign, the CDC and its participating firms will continue to aggressively communicate the importance of physical activity to kids, parents, teachers, and other influencers. The VERB effort will expand its support to community groups, and national youth and service organizations that engage youth in physical activities. And the initiative will continue to provide numerous opportunities for tweens to find a way to get physically active for at least an hour every day.

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