On Feb. 9, first lady Michelle Obama started "Let's Move," a campaign to address the problem of childhood obesity, which has tripled, in percentage terms, over the last three decades. The initiative is wide-ranging, dealing with everything from school-lunch menus to food labeling to improving access to healthier food in some communities. Also key, however, will be a public service campaign to promote "60 minutes of play a day."
Communication professor Marian Huhman is familiar with such campaigns from prior work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As part of a CDC team, she helped to develop and then evaluate a five-year campaign called VERB, with similar goals of getting kids active. Huhman (pronounced WHO-mun) was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
The VERB campaign was directed at "tweens" - children 9 to 13 years old. What were the lessons learned in reaching that age group?
We used a "surround" strategy for tweens - reaching them with VERB messages in all the places they lived and played, including home, school, after-school programs, recreation centers, parks, the mall, their cell phones, TV and, of course, the Internet. We learned that creating a strong and appealing brand gave us a consistent messaging platform to launch fresh images and ads that kept kids intrigued with the campaign. We also found that building strong brand awareness early built momentum that maximized our cost effectiveness.
What are the dos and don'ts in messages aimed at changing children's behavior?
VERB messages were never about exercise or how important being physically active was to health, but rather how physical activity was an opportunity to do something fun with friends. Kids told us that being active was cool, appealed to their love of discovery, and was a way to "live out their dreams."
A major "do" that we learned and that Let's Move is planning is to use celebrities - because TV personalities and sports team players capture kids' attention. Also, using cartoon characters that kids already identify with is a good move. Sometimes you can co-brand with a brand like Disney that is already known and liked by kids. That association is a quick way to build liking and awareness for your brand.
What are the key components needed for a campaign like this to have any effect, and do those appear to be in place here?
To have an effect, you have to do more than raise awareness and give information. You have to use the tools from marketing - finding out what the barriers are and making it worthwhile to adopt the behavior.
That means finding out what rewards are needed, such as recognition and praise, and easy places to do the behavior. You have to make the new behavior the easy and appealing choice. Another smart approach of Let's Move is less emphasis on individual level change, what we call "downstream marketing," and more attention on the "upstream"- working with the food and beverage industry, with schools on PE (physical education), and improving access to farmers markets, thus addressing policies, regulations, and environments.
Just how hard is it to change behavior in a large population through a public information campaign - especially around issues of eating and exercise?
It's hard. Sedentary lifestyles and diets high in sugar, fat, and salt have become bad habits for many of us. But remember, it's only a few hundred calories in versus out every day that can make the difference. Sounds simple, but the fact is, substantial resources are needed - to get physical activity integrated into the school day, to fund schools so they don't have to rely on beverage contracts, and to get top quality ad agencies to develop the media campaign. You have to find ways to make the right choice easy, fun and popular.
Childhood obesity has become an in-your-face compelling issue. Evidence shows that this generation of youth may be the first to be less healthy than their parents' generation. That's why the call to action of Let's Move, to solve childhood obesity in one generation, is so spot on.
From a health communication and education perspective, what advantages does the first lady have in promoting an initiative like this? Are there potential disadvantages?
She is perfectly positioned to take this on. She is a mother, she is an articulate spokesperson, and she has already built cache around the issue with the White House garden. She is able to leverage some major players - getting the interest of professional athletes is a great attention-getter and forming partnerships with major media groups like Disney, NBC, Viacom, and Scholastic Media is critical to getting your message out.
I read some of the blog posts after the announcement and naysayers were critical of more government intervention in Americans' private lives. But the costs of childhood obesity are ones we will bear as a nation for years to come and there is support from both parties to address this issue.