KATHY HUGHES, PRODUCER: Kids love chips. And television. Frosted Cereals. And computers. French Fries… And more television.
It might look cute.
But the results are not cute. America's children are in the middle of a fat epidemic. Type two diabetes and heart disease, once adult disorders, are now being diagnosed in children. And as the number of fat kids skyrockets, the crisis worsens. Today one in four school age children can be called overweight. And over the last twenty years, the number of obese kids has tripled.
But don't worry, the government has decided to weigh in.
TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES:
Ladies and Gentlemen, it's time to act.
KATHY HUGHES: Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson recently kicked off a five year, 190 million dollar media campaign to get kids exercising.
For years our nation's concern about the health problems of our children has been growing in proportion to our children's waist line.
KATHY HUGHES: Thompson is hoping for a slam dunk.
It's called VERB.
KATHY HUGHES: You heard right. It's called Verb.
The government's big plan to fight fat is to advertise to kids, kids between the ages of 9 and 13.
And that means partnering up with the couch potato industry. Nickelodeon, for instance will promote VERB on it's Wild and Crazy Kids show. AOL Time Warner is handling the VERB website. Disney is a partner, as is Primedia, the company that's come under fire for running junk food commercials during its Channel One news broadcasts to school kids.
These are the very companies whose profits depend on keeping kids in an un-VERB-like state: in a movie seat, at the computer, or slumped in front of the television for as many hours as possible.
Strange bedfellows? It gets stranger.
DAVID SHEA, PUBLICIS GROUPE:
I think we're changing the consciousness. I think verb right now is thought of as a piece of grammar. What we want to do is create a whole different mindset, that verb is really an action.
KATHY HUGHES: David Shea and Lisa Mills created VERB for one of the nation's largest ad agencies, the Publicis Groupe. Their mission: to re-package exercise into a brand. A cool brand.
It has to be cool. It has to sound cool, it has to look cool. As soon as it doesn't, we've lost our audience. We can't do that.
LISA MILLS, PUBLICIS GROUPE:
We know it will work because we we've been so successful for other products. We're the ones that could make it work.
KATHY HUGHES: Shea and Mills know what they're talking about. They're among the country's top experts in marketing to children. But it's ironic that they and the Publicis Groupe would be hired to try and get kids fit...when so many of their campaigns could be helping to make them fat.
The Company's string of marketing victories includes a who's who of the sugary, salty high-calorie food industry: from Big Macs to Count Chocula to Coca Cola, to Fruit Roll-ups. All are marketed aggressively to children.
I asked the VERB creators how they could compete with themselves...
It's not to compete, it's ... it's truly to be competitive. Um, and the competitive set of those brands. This is going to be a kids' brand, as uh, fun and as attractive as any kids' brand, as effective as they are, at generating desire on the part of those products.
KATHY HUGHES: Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard University is writing a book about the powerful 12 billion dollar a year industry that markets to children. She is skeptical of the government's whole VERB-thing.
SUSAN LINN, PSYCHOLOGIST, HARVARD UNIVERSITY:
They are working with people who have a vested interest in keeping children watching television and eating food that isn't good for them. Now how can people who, for whom that is a primary value be really helping children and families combat childhood obesity?
KATHY HUGHES: Even if the campaign is well-intentioned, Linn says the message to get out and VERB won't cut through.
I, I taped six hours of Nickelodeon, and counted the food commercials. I saw 40 food commercials over six hours. That's about one every 10 minutes.
KATHY HUGHES: American kids see an average of up to 40,000 commercials a year. A quarter of them are for food.
It's over and over and over again. And the messages are, eat here and you will be happy. Eat this food and you will be happy.
KATHY HUGHES: Even at the grocery store, marketers are trying to seduce children. Their favorite cartoon and movie figures call out to kids from the shelves...
When it comes to promotional tie-ins,
any kid worth his salty french fries can tell you which toys from which movies can be obtained at which fast food operation.
It all adds up to two messages, reinforcing each other: Sit and eat. Eat and sit. Sit and eat. Eat and sit.
It has doctors worried.
DR. DAVID LUDWIG:
We find some children consuming literally thousands of calories a day in fast foods and soft drinks.
KATHY HUGHES: Dr. David Ludwig directs the Obesity Clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston. He applauds the effort to get kids active. But he says, unless the corporations that entice kids to eat too much are reigned in, little will change.
DR. DAVID LUDWIG:
There's a tremendous amount of profit which is now being made by marketing fast food, soft drinks and other high-calorie poor nutrition foods directly to children. It's going to take a very concerted political campaign to change policies that might threaten the profits of some big companies.
KATHY HUGHES: A government campaign to stop marketing to kids? Fat chance.
KATHY HUGHES (ADDRESSING TOMMY THOMPSON):
Are there any efforts to restrict the amount of adverting just being broadcasted to kids?
No, no. We want to do the positive We don't want to do the negative. We want to be out there encouraging children to get out of the front room of their house and out into the streets and playing baseball, dancing, you know, playing some kids of sports, being physically active.
Do you think these messages, will there be enough of them be able to compete with all the food, and bad lifestyle.
Probably not. But at least, at least we're starting. At least we're going to push through and hopefully get some real action. I'm hoping you know that other people will start seeing our advertisements and say they want to participate. And if we can do that, maybe we can even get the fast food industry to give us some money to actually help us advertise good physical activity because they should be involved. Instead of just selling their products they should help us lead
Are you going to actually tell kids, don't eat french fries, or ...
Or tell them ...
It's not our intent to ever say no.
No no no.
To ever say no. It's to say what we want you to do. It's ... in ... in the science language, it's not a cessation program. It is not a don't do program. It is about all of the possibilities. How much ... how many possibilities there are and all of the things to do. And, again the science shows that embracing those positive opportunities, and getting involved in those things, makes the unhealthy behavior decrease.
The government's VERB website is where you think you might find information on making the unhealthy behavior decrease. But Susan Linn found little more than a series of links to VERB's corporate partners. Nickelodeon was promoting its TV shows. AOL Time Warner's Sports Illustrated For Kids featured several advertisements, including one for a candy called ZOURS.
So you can link up to a...
To a candy website
On the government's...
On the government's website.
KATHY HUGHES: It also touted it's movie Like Mike, complete with a Like Mike video game.
Is there something in here as a child psychologist that you think a child would react to you and think, I want to do this too?
I think that um, what this website does is encourage people to sit here and try to shoot baskets.
He's getting great exercise. I'm just sitting here.
KATHY HUGHES: The website, a government source told me, is slowly being filled out with more "VERB Content" which will hint but never directly tell - kids: turn off the computer and go play.
If the government really wanted kids to exercise, they would be putting physical education back in the schools, for instance. Or, you know, providing parks, or, or, you know, providing support for after-school sports programs.
KATHY HUGHES: One thing the government is providing is millions of dollars to ad agencies and entertainment companies. One of them, Nickelodeon, is sponsoring VERB Wild and Crazy Kids events around the country.
Will they get kids "verbing"? Or keep them planted in front of the tube?