Author: Jessica Boileau
HLTH 641: Health Communication, Spring 2021
“VERB, it’s what you do”. Feeling nostalgic? If you were watching television as a child in the early 2000s, you may recognize this phrase. VERB was a media campaign to promote physical activity to combat childhood obesity. The campaign ran from 2002 to 2006 and was targeted towards the 9 to 13-year-old age group. With the short amount of airtime, was this campaign truly successful? This media campaign was very successful because it reached out to so many young people and was memorable, enough to where even I recognize the phase almost 20 years later.
Childhood obesity has significantly increased over the past three decades (Han et al, 2010). Obesity in youth is a major concern because it can lead to obesity in adulthood. Therefore the individual would be predisposed to medical complications and diseases in the future. Some examples are diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hyperandrogenism, cardiovascular complications, respiratory complications, and many other issues. All of these increase the individual’s mortality rate (Speiser et al., 2005). The prevalence of childhood obesity is due to the current lifestyle children part-take in, which is a sedentary lifestyle (Han et al, 2010). Television and video games have created a new lifestyle for children because it promotes a sedentary life (Speiser et al., 2005). Only 25% of children in the United States reported regular physical activity, and 14% said they do not participate in regular activity at all. In a study that compared weight gain in youth ages from the years 1980 to 1999, the number of overweight individuals doubled in children ages 6 to 11 and tripled in the ages 12 to 17. Particularly, African-Americans, Hispanics, Pima Indians, and Native Americans have a high rate of obesity (Speiser et al., 2005).
One of the ideas to combat childhood obesity is to promote physical activity. Lack of physical activity is not subject to one social class but is prevalent among all children despite socioeconomic status, gender, and race (Speiser et al., 2005). The most effective treatment for childhood obesity is to decrease sedentary activity and increased physical activity. Sixty minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity, and less than two hours a day doing a sedentary activity are recommended for the best results (Raj & Kumar, 2010). Ways to encourage physical activity are to make it fun and not a requirement and make it accessible to all youth (Speiser et al., 2005). Recommendations to parents are to make physical activity a positive experience. They should start early with their child and make physical activity part of the family’s daily routine. This can be done by taking a walk every day or playing games. The parent can also discourage television at times and encourage their child to participate in sports or recreational activities that they enjoy (CDC, 2020). This is why a campaign like VERB was so successful because it portrayed physical activity as fun and enjoyable to youth.
What was the VERB Campaign?
VERB was a multicultural campaign created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Disease Control and Presentation when childhood obesity was recognized as a major concern (DC Health Matters, 2021). The VERB campaign used a combination of paid advertising, marketing strategies, and partnership efforts. The most common platform was presented on television as a commercial on media channels like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel. The campaign worked with the 9 to 13 age group to develop ideas, thus making the campaign “for-kids-by-kids” (DC Health Matters, 2021). This marketed physical activity as cool, fun, and a way to have a good time with friends (NSMC, 2021). Using a “for-kids-by-kids” method, they were very successful by increasing awareness by 74% in the 9 to 13-year-old Americans. 90% of those demonstrated that they also understood the messages portrayed (DC Health Matters, 2021).
The primary goal of the VERB campaign was to increase and maintain physical activity in youth ages 9 to 13 (NSMC, 2021). The U.S. Congress was concerned over the rise of obesity and believed it was important to change lifestyle habits and promote health messages early in life. Secondary goals were to increase knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs of regular physical activity, increase parental and influencer support, make aware of options and opportunities for physical activity, and create opportunities for youth to participate in regular physical activity (NSMC, 2021). The campaign recommended at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five days a week. The campaign not only wanted to encourage physical activity but also get youth involved with family and positive groups, like teams and clubs (Dobbs, 2003). Check out (Figure 1) to see more detail on strategy and goals.
The 9 to 13 age group is a delicate age to market towards, because they cannot say “you have to do this”. The campaign had to keep up with the trends and interests of youth by associating the message with music, clothing, electronics, or enjoyment of life (Wong et al., 2004). They used popular brands, athletes, celebrities, and activities or products that were considered cool, fun, and motivating. The parent or influencers role is to praise the youth when they participate in physical activity (Wong et al., 2004).
As a multicultural campaign, VERB reached many backgrounds. However, the CDC wanted to specifically reach out to African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and American Indians (NSMC, 2021). Culture influences an individual’s perceptions and experiences of life events, so it is a huge factor in how one views health (Wright et al., 2013). Children in these cultures have the tendency to be less physically active due to their culture. VERB was created to be unique because this group would not be reached easily by a general campaign (NSMC, 2021). The specific age group was targeted because the 9 to 13-year-old age group is when the child is less dependent on their parents for their decision-making process. A secondary target in order to help the child more is teachers, youth leaders, physical education, healthcare professionals, pediatricians, and coaches. This group would help encourage the child to be active and give praise where it is due (NSMC, 2021).
There is a three-step process when it comes to targeting an audience. This involves segmentation, evaluation, and selection. Segmentation looks at the larger population and divides it into a smaller group. In order to do so, the group should have something in common. Examples would be needs, wants, barriers, motivations, values, behaviors, and lifestyles. Once the common background has been identified, the campaign must create unique strategies to persuade the group to change (Lee & Kotler, 2016). In the case of the VERB campaign, the group has a couple of barriers in common. The children who are not physically active have fear of failure, lack of time, family responsibilities, and competing interests (NSMC, 2021). This is why the campaign promotes physical activity as fun, to decrease the pressure of failure. Also having parents and educators promote physical activity helps cut the barriers of lack of time and other responsibilities.
The next step is evaluation. This is the stage where the segments will be prioritized to narrow down the groups even more. Here is when the campaign should consider their ability to reach the target and how receptive they will be (Lee & Kotler, 2016). Children will not be as receptive if they are told to do the physical activity by their parents or educators. This would portray physical activity as a chore, which is going to decrease their willingness to participate. Creating commercials with celebrities playing games with the iconic yellow kickball (pictured to the right) makes physical activity look fun and cool.
Lastly, the selection is when the campaign characterizes groups by meaningful predictors of market behavior. There are a couple of variables involved in this stage including demographic segmentation, geographic segmentation, psychographic segmentation, and behavior segmentation. The demographic variable considers age, gender, race, religion and etc. This campaign segments age-specific to 9 to 13-year-olds. Race is targeted, however, they would like all cultures to be involved. Geographic segmentation is according to geographic areas or regions. This campaign was specific to the United States, so all American children were targeted. Psychographic divides based on social class, lifestyle, values, or personality characteristics. The VERB campaign considers that the group they want to influence is sensitive, and needs to see physical activity in a specific way. They could view physical activity as a chore, or they may not even think about it at all, so they use the values of the children and market towards it. Behavior divides based on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to the “product”. VERB considers that there is low knowledge on physical exercise, so they market towards parents and educators as well in order to get the child educated. Using all the variables of selection then creates a campaign that would be more likely to have the group respond similarly to the product, price, place, and promotion (Lee & Kotler, 2016).
After the target audience has been decided, the next step is to influence the group through the four “P’s”. The first is product. Product is the desired behavior of the target audience (Lee & Kotler, 2016). The VERB campaign’s product is voluntary physical activity (Wong et al., 2004). The second “P” is price, which is the cost the target audience associates with adopting the behavior. Physical activity can be free or could be pricy depending on the chosen activity. Another part could be the “cost” of timing for physical activity programs for the parent and child. The third is place, which is where and when the behavior would take place (Lee & Kotler, 2016). VERB wants physical activity to be done in a safe place. So it is encouraged to take place in parks, schools, and youth organizations (Wong et al., 2004.). Lastly, promotion, which is the communication to inspire the target audience (Lee & Kotler, 2016). Through the advertising on television, they marketed physical activity as fun and cool in order to get the message across successfully.
Lasting Impact of the Campaign
Even though VERB did not run for many years, it did have a lasting impact on the children in my generation. As soon as I saw the slogan for VERB, I was immediately flooded with memories of the campaign. VERB became a huge success not only because it helped children get active in the early 2000s, but its message was also memorable. This is what then helps to provide a long-term behavior change.
Additional Links to VERB Brochures
Figure 1: Describes the marketing strategy and the short, mid, and long term goals of the campaign team. Retrieved from: Preventing Chronic Disease (thensmc.com)
CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Making Physical Activity a Part of a Child’s Life. Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adding-pa/activities-children.html.
DC Health Matters. (2021). VERB: it’s what you do. DC Health Matters. https://www.dchealthmatters.org/promisepractice/index/view?pid=3663.
Dobbs, K. (2003). VERB: It’s what you do. CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2004/jul/pdf/04_0043_02.pdf.
Han, J.C. et al. (2010). Childhood Obesity. The Lancet. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60171-7
Huhman, M. et al. (2004). The VERB™ Campaign Logic Model: A Tool for Planning and Evaluation. Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice, and Policy. 1(3): 1-6.
Lee, N.R. & Kotler, P. (2016). Social Marketing: Changing Behaviors for Good, Fifth Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.
NSMC: Leading Behavior Change. VERB. NSMC: Leading Behavior Change. https://thensmc.com/resources/showcase/verb%E2%84%A2.
Raj, M. & Kumar, R.K. (2010). Obesity in children & adolescents. Indian Journal of Medical Research. 132(5): 598-607.
Speiser, P.W. (2005). Childhood Obesity. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. (90) 3:1871–1887, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2004-1389
Wong et al., (2004). VERB—A Social Marketing Campaign to Increase Physical Activity Among Youth. Preventing Chronic Disease. 1(3): A10.
Wright, K. B., Sparks, L., & O’Hair, D. H. (2013). Health Communication in the 21st Century (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.