Public health experts are taking note of what the food industry has known for decades: children pay attention to advertising.
Now, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that advertising can succeed in getting kids to be more physically active.
The study evaluated results of the first two years of the CDC youth media campaign "VERB: It's what you do," a national mass marketing program that promoted physical activity among children ages 9 to 13 years.
The program ran from 2002 to 2006 and reached 17 million children in the United States. In addition to television, radio and print advertising, the campaign also used the Internet and school- and community-based programs to get the message across to tweens that physical activity is fun.
And it worked, says study co-author Marian Huhman, Ph.D.: "The bottom line is children who saw the VERB campaign were more physically active than those who didn't see it. We were 'selling' physical activity as a product and lots of kids 'bought' [it]."
The study appears in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
To evaluate the program, researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 parent-child pairs at the beginning of the advertising campaign and again two years later. Researchers asked participants about physical activity levels and attitudes toward being active.
They found that the more frequently children saw campaign messages, the more physical activity they reported. In addition, their attitudes about physical activity became more positive.
Two years into the campaign, children who were aware of the CDC program engaged in about four weekly sessions of physical activity, compared with three sessions for children who had no exposure to it.
And of children who had heard of the campaign, almost all reported that they understood at least one key message.
But these results don't come cheap. VERB received $194 million in federal funding in its first two years. Huhman said the payoffs down the road are likely to be worth it. "If you look at the cost per child related to the campaign versus the cost of obesity-related illnesses, we think it's a very good investment."
Sylvia Moore, Ph.D., assistant dean at the University of Wyoming School of Medicine, said she was initially a skeptic, primarily because of the campaign's cost. However, she finds the results impressive: "As somebody who actually is trying to promote healthy behaviors, I am going to use this study to say it's OK to buy ads in newspapers and pay for communities to put up billboards or banners because we now have evidence that it helps."
Moore said the study shows there is a role for mass marketing in improving health behaviors. "We say to the food industry to quit marketing [unhealthy food] to children. At the same time we're recognizing the power of marketing to change behaviors."