A Sluggish War on Indolence

Why the Bush administration’s anti-obesity campaign is doomed.

“Verb: It’s what you do.” That’s the slogan the Bush administration thinks is going to inspire “tweens”—kids between 9 and 13—to get off their duffs and get active. To that end, the administration has pledged $190 million to an ad campaign that’s supposed to lead the charge in reducing childhood obesity.

Announced with great fanfare last month, the campaign came with the familiar staggering statistics: The number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Verb” is the government’s way of fighting back. The first TV ad debuted in late July, on Disney and Nickelodeon, showing a computer-simulated girl diving into a swimming pool full of words such as “twist,” “run,” and “jump,” accompanied by a voice-over that says, “Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, there are verbs out there just waiting for you to get into.”

Childhood obesity is a serious health problem that certainly warrants national attention. (The Centers for Disease Control maintains a useful Web page for calculating whether your child is overweight. It also has one for adults.) But as a marketing campaign, “Verb: It’s what you do” fails to deliver on so many levels that it’s hard to believe it was created by a top-flight advertising conglomerate:

  1. It’s vague. Traditionally, public service announcements have tended to stick to a simple, straightforward message: Buckle up, eat five vegetables a day, just say no, read a book, etc. But the new obesity campaign promotes the far more nebulous concept of an “active lifestyle.” The new commercials are designed to alter kids’ notion of what’s “cool” by creating “buzz” that will translate into activity and, eventually, skinnier kids. This indirect methodology explains why the ads are so inscrutable.
  2. Grammar isn’t sexy. Even if teens understand the message, it’s not clear that a campaign built around the concept of “Verb” will strike them as hip. More likely, it will remind them of dreary school-day afternoons spent diagramming sentences.
  3. The Web site stinks. Donated by AOL, it peddles lame “gizmos” such as Verb stickers you can print out to put on your skateboards; Verb paper airplanes; Verb kites; and a Verb desktop pattern that, self-defeatingly, will keep youngsters’ eyes glued to their computers. (That’s what AOL really wants, isn’t it?) And it’s only a matter of time before Rev. Donald Wildmon accuses the Web site of encouraging sexual promiscuity:

VERB isn’t what you think. It’s about doing your thing —or finding a new thing. And you can do it whenever, wherever, and with whoever you want (maybe even famous people).
The site doesn’t even have a link to the newly energized President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which actually does have helpful tips on diet and exercise (and also much better TV commercials).

Mike Greenwell, communications director for the chronic disease branch of the Centers for Disease Control, which is overseeing the campaign, says the initial ads this summer are simply “brand seeding.” More complex ideas will come later. The Verb project was supposedly modeled after the successful “Truth” campaign created by anti-tobacco activists. But in that campaign, the branding strategy worked only because the ads themselves were edgy and direct. (One TV ad, for instance, makes much of the fact that both cigarettes and dog feces contain ammonia.) The Truth campaign was successful because it took tobacco companies to the mat, in a way no one had before, for selling products that make people sick. The “brand” was largely superfluous. Making a parallel obesity campaign would require juxtaposing slaughterhouse shots with McDonald’s Big Macs or showing close-ups of the bugs used to create the red dye in most candy and soda. But that was never going to happen, if only because the campaign was crafted by Publicis Groupe, which makes TV commercials for … McDonald’s. Indeed, the campaign’s corporate sponsors are a virtual Who’s Who of the couch-potato industry—in addition to AOL, they include Disney, DC Comics, Primedia, and Viacom.

Even if you buy Greenwell’s “brand seeding” argument, branding is a complex process that takes a long time and only works through repeated exposure over a variety of media. But that seems unlikely to happen, too, because President Bush has already pulled the plug on the “Verb: It’s what you do” campaign. His 2003 budget doesn’t ask for another penny for it.