CDC’s Verb Campaign to Get Kids Active Drops the Ball on Engaging Teachers and Parents

CDC's Verb Campaign to Get Kids Active Drops the Ball on Engaging Teachers and ParentsBelieve it or not, Verb, the CDC’s proven-to be-effective  campaign to increase physical activity among school children (particularly 9-13 year olds), is based on grammar. Yep, you read that right. The campaign, now winding down after a five-year run, motivated kids to find their own “verb,” be it kicking a ball, riding bikes with their friends or running around the block.

I hadn’t heard much about Verb before reading about its demise in one of Tara Parker-Pope’s recent Health Journal article in the Wall Street Journal, but I’m blown out of the water by by the success of this campaign, which promoted exercise as fun and invigorating. Key strategies included quirky marketing efforts in elementary schools, fun TV ads and a great gaming Web site.

According to the WSJ, the end of the campaign comes just as the data is coming in, showing that it was surprisingly effective at increasing physical activity among kids.  Alas, even though the campaign appeared to be working, Congress failed to renew funding, and now Verb’s out of money.

Despite Verb’s successes among kids, the campaign failed to reach out to key influencers — parents and teachers — who are of course the ones who have to keep the message coming, according to Stella Kusner, account manager for the Verb campaign. These influencers also have/had the power to lobby for re-funding; 9-13 year olds don’t.

Verb also got off to a bad start when critics complained that the focus should be on improving eating habits, rather than exercise. The CDC’s response — be proud, you social marketers — was that it could succeed far more by getting kids to exercise rather than telling kids what not to do. Way to go CDC, since healthy eating and active living are two sides of the same coin.

The Verb campaign is winding up with a bounce, distributing 500,000 yellow balls to kids. Ball recipients are asked to play with the ball and then log on to the Web site, blog about how they played with it, then pass the ball on to a friend. “Yellowball narrowly escapes death in jaw of vicious dog,” reads one post.

There are 350,000 balls in use right now, and over 12,000 blog posts. Not a bad response rate. The remaining yellow balls will be distributed this month, as the campaign (and the funding) draws to a close. Any takers? Campaign leaders are talking to prospective funders both corporate and nonprofit.

Two points here:

  1. I just love this campaign, on a purely visceral level. Love the bouncing yellow balls. Love the strategy — a home-run mix of on the ground and online components. Love the grammatical hook (I’m sure that a secondary benefit has been that more kids understand what verbs are). But they missed a huge target audience in failing to reach teachers and parents. Yikes!
  2. Even if this campaign stops here, the balls will remain out there (my daughter hangs on to a ball forever, and I have a collection of ball pumps to prove it) for the long term, driving kids to the Verb Web site. So the campaign continues, unofficially, and basically unfunded.

Nancy Schwartz on September 11, 2006 in Branding and Messages, Nonprofit Communications, Social Marketing, Unique Approaches | 3 comments
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  • Craig

    When social marketing campaigns like VERB get designed, one of the considerations is the ‘competition.’ In this case, I would presume that VERB was aware of the many different types of nutrition and physical activity efforts going on in schools around the country. Rather than become part of that ‘noisy’ milieu – and add more burdens to teachers and administrators – VERB set off in a direction where there were not as many physical activity players – the new media world – and provide another set of channels through which tweens would be exposed to messages and opportunities around PA.
    While this decision might have had an effect of not mobilising the support from this constituency to sustain its funding, it would be equally sad if it’s only when programs to improve child health are in schools and classrooms that parents and teachers pay attention to them.

  • Cassy

    Tell me what do I need to do to put Verb in are kids hands in the metro area in Phoenix Az. My kids haven’t yet seen it on are streets.I live in the 85019 zip code. They are waiting to hear for someone about this . Please let us Know. Thank you. Good Idea ! A Mom of 4 Girls.

  • carolynn

    The VERB campaign is an outstanding social marketing campaign that has effectively reached toward it’s target audience. This campaign was targetted at 9-13 year olds and not at parents as it successfully used audience segmentation as one of it’s key components. No one successful campaign will ever be able to reach multiple target audiences, and this is true for the VERB campaign. The ability of the CDC to develop a campaign in this manner demonstrates outstanding ingenuity that led to a substantial increase in physical activity in “tweens”. Failure to reach parents and teachers is not one of the downfalls of this campaign, it is one of the points that led to it’s success.

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