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Without Funds, Verb Program Became Past Tense

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Jayonni Doy is a quiet 10-year-old with an effervescent smile. Like many children, she is struggling with her weight. View Gallery »
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

Its message and look were clever, hyper, even edgy -- the perfect appeal to the tweeners who were its target. Yes, tweeners, the 9- to 13-year-olds stuck between young children and true teenagers. A group whose rate of overweight and obesity has almost quadrupled since 1974, not just because of too many french fries but because of too many couch potatoes.

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The Verb campaign, as in "VERB -- It's what you do," was supposed to get them up and moving.

The national program, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was ordered up by Congress as a social marketing campaign to increase physical activity. Lawmakers invested heavily, with $125 million in start-up funds in 2001, because everyone said this had to be different to succeed. No preachy or facts-heavy delivery; no random, late-night public-service announcements.

Instead, Verb used paid advertising, highly focused marketing, community promotions and megastar role models (rapper Bow Wow, pro quarterback Donovan McNabb and singer-actress Miley Cyrus) to brand its cool, can-do message. "We very much worked at understanding kids from kids' point of view," said Faye Wong, who directed the program.

By the second year, evaluations showed that the program was making a marked difference. Millions of children were aware of the campaign, with substantial numbers choosing to be much more active. Supporters expected Verb's impact to grow exponentially.

Except Congress cut the funding and summarily ended the program. A few passionate proponents simply could not get their colleagues to pay enough attention. The last ads aired in late 2006.

"It's a piece of history now," said Jeffrey P. Koplan, former CDC director and now vice president for global health at Emory University. "If you did that with a vaccine, that would be public health malpractice."

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