July 18th, 2002

CDC Ads Ask Children to Be Active --- Effort Targets Obese Kids, But Critics Want to Add Healthy Eating to the Mix

By Suzanne Vrancia
Wall Street Journal

As concern mounts about the number of obese children, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention is launching a $125 million national marketing effort
to promote exercise. But consumer advocacy groups and nutritional experts worry
the effort doesn’t go far enough.

The advertising, which debuts next week, targets children aged nine to 13.
One commercial, expected to air on "SpongeBob SquarePants," which
is broadcast on Viacom’s Nickelodeon channel, and "Gilmore Girls,"
which is broadcast on AOL Time Warner’s WB network, features a computer-generated
girl figure jumping into a swimming pool full of action words such as "twist,"
"run" and "jump." A voiceover chimes in: "Everywhere
you go, everywhere you look, there are verbs out there just waiting for you
to get into." The tagline for the effort is "Verb: It’s what you do."

The television spots, created by Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi, follow
a 15-second teaser TV commercial that aired in June and introduced the theme
of the campaign to kids. Other commercials will show youngsters in real situations
and may include celebrities. According to the latest CDC statistics, 14% of
teenagers were overweight in 1999, almost triple the number in the late 1970s.
And 13% of children aged six to 11 were overweight, almost double the rate of
two decades ago.

Last year, Congress appropriated $125 million to fund the first year of the
CDC’s Youth Media Campaign, with $65 million earmarked for traditional ads.
Other dollars will be used for promotions, such as sponsorship of Nickelodeon’s
show "Wild & Crazy Kids," and the show’s nine-market event tour,
where children will participate in offbeat physical competitions.

By comparison, the five leading fast-food chains spent $1.5 billion promoting
their products last year, according to CMR, an ad-tracking unit of Taylor Nelson
Sofres. "It is like shooting a water gun at a big fire," says Robert
Kahn, a brand consultant at WPP Group’s Enterprise IG.

Branding and nutritional experts believe the campaign is a step in the right
direction. Some, though, are concerned it fails to address the issue of kids
who prefer fast food to healthier meals. "The average American child sees
10,000 food advertisements a year on TV, and 95% of those are for fast-food,
soft drinks, candy or sugar cereals," says Kelly Brownell, professor of
psychology at Yale University and director of Yale’s Center for Eating and Weight

Mr. Brownell says he believes the CDC is avoiding the issue of poor eating
habits because it doesn’t want to offend the powerful food industry. "When
you are pushing physical activity you have no enemies," he says. "If
you are trying to change the diet of America, you have massive enemies."
Mr. Brownell suggests taxing all fast food and using the funds to develop a
pro-nutrition campaign. "It would allow you to hire Michael Jordan and
Shaquille O’Neal to push vegetables," he says.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization
founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader. The group argues the CDC has in effect
formed a partnership with the "obesity lobby" by hiring Publicis’s
Frankel, a marketing firm that does work for McDonald’s, the fast-food company.
"They have a conflict of interest," says Gary Ruskin, executive director
of Commercial Alert.

Michael Greenwell, communications director for the CDC’s Chronic Disease Center,
says the CDC chose Frankel because it wanted agencies that had a "proven
track record" in reaching its target age group.

Mr. Greenwell says the CDC hasn’t ruled out broadening the campaign to include
messages that promote healthy eating. But he says the CDC wanted a simple message,
one that wouldn’t confuse kids, to kick off the campaign. The CDC also intends
to test the results of every ad on a monthly basis by using telephone and in-person
interviews with kids around the country. "We feel a responsibility to be
sure this money is spent well," Mr. Greenwell says.


Add your own Comment