U.S. launches $125 mil push to combat obesity

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Paid ads can sell kids clothes, food, drinks and films. Now the question is whether they can sell them on a lifestyle of physical activity.

After months of planning, the government's first attempt to use ads to get tweens off their duff and into exercise launches tonight with paid teaser TV and radio spots from the Centers for Disease Control aimed at 9-to-13-year-olds. The 15-second spot from Publicis Group's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, features computer animation of action words turning into an image of a boy running. The theme: "Verb: It's what you do."

$50 million for media

The spot kicks off a major multiyear effort by CDC that Congress funded the first year with $125 million-about $50 million of that going toward media and another $43 million directed to various marketing and public-relations activities. The White House included money in its budget for next year for the spots to continue, though at a lower level.

"Unfortunately, there are incredible barriers to kids being physically active," said Mike Greenwell, communications director for the chronic-disease center at the CDC, citing figures indicating that the number of kids getting physical education in school has dropped from 50% at the beginning of the 1990s to 21% today. "What's going on in schools is pushing kids to be more sedentary."

The first teaser TV spots aimed at kids on broadcast and cable networks will expand into a far more extensive integrated effort that by September will include ads aimed at kids and their parents, a Web site, a major event tour and extensive promotional activities. CDC named Publicis' Frankel, Chicago, to handle the promotional activities. Publicis Dialog will handle public relations and Zenith Optimedia Group the media buying. At least two of the agencies have extensive kids' experience with food marketers: Frankel works for McDonald's Corp. and Saatchi handles several General Mills brands including Fruit Roll Ups and Go-Gurt

Viacom Plus got an estimated $30 million chunk of the deal. CDC will be the exclusive sponsor of a weekly live action Nickelodeon show called, "WACK," (Wild & Crazy Kids), a related nine-city tour, Nick.com's WACK Web site, and a "Nick News" special program. Customized advertorials will appear in Nick Magazine. MTV will see sponsorship on its MTV Rock & Jock programming, CBS TV and Westwood One will get public service announcements featuring celebrities. Simon & Schuster will custom print a fitness book and Blockbuster Video will partner in a nine-market promotion, running the spots on in-store monitors.

Two years ago when former U.S. Rep. John Porter, an Illinois Republican, pushed the program, he wanted CDC to target increased childhood obesity but provided wide latitude in how it could be done. The only requirement was that CDC "communicate messages that help kids develop habits that foster good health over a lifetime, including diet, physical activity and avoidance of illicit drugs, tobacco and alcohol."

Mr. Greenwell said CDC chose to narrow the target to increased physical activity. "What we want is behavior change. That would be a success for us."

Positive lifestyle

The campaign takes the approach of suggesting the fun of a lifestyle that includes a physical activity, rather than warning about the danger of not exercising. The hope is that the encouragement toward a positive lifestyle will be enough to lead kids away from obesity. "When kids are in their tween years, a child still has a sense of optimism and [positive] age-appropriate advertising can reach them and get them more involved in positive activity," said Mary Haskin, exec VP-account management at Saatchi.

That approach could prove controversial. In the contretemps between the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for Drug-Free America over why ads aimed at a similar age group failed, the Partnership has argued that ads promoting positive lifestyle activities don't motivate nearly as well as ads warning about drug dangers.

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