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CDC Tries To Take A Bite Out Of Childhood Obesity

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency usually known for stopping epidemics, will try to create one with a $59.2 million TV and viral marketing program in which it will distribute 300,000 yellow balls to curb child obesity.

The integrated effort, launching Nov. 1, could be the swan song for the four-year-old program, which aims to make today's youth more active. The House of Representatives has proposed allocating $11.2 million to Verb while the Senate wants to pull all support. Congress can opt to reauthorize funding for the program after the 2006 budget is passed, however. A CDC rep said the federal agency had no idea how much funding Verb will get in 2006.

The core of the effort will be Verb Yellowball, which was inspired by yellow bike programs in Amsterdam; Seattle; Austin, Texas; and elsewhere. Those cities provided bicycles that residents would ride and then leave on the street for the next user.

TV spots via Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, show a child reaching for the sun, grabbing the orb, which turns into Yellowball, and joining other kids in play. Print also uses the tagline, "Verb. It's what you do." Event presence, PR by Manning Selvage & Lee, New York, and sponsorships are part of the early mix.

The next phase, running January through April, takes the "pass the ball on" message to a national level with mobile forays into New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Portland, Seattle and Denver. Multicultural programs are also planned with outreaches to African-American kids by PFI Marketing, New York. A Partnership, New York, will target Asian-American and Pacific Islander children. Garcia 360, San Antonio, is in charge of the Hispanic leg, and G&G Advertising, Albuquerque, N.M., will focus on American Indian/Alaskan natives.

Yellowball comes with instructions to play with the ball and then log onto Verbnow.com. Kids then enter the code printed on the ball and create a blog telling the world what they did with it. They also can read the blogs of other kids who touched that same ball. Then they have the obligation to keep play alive by giving the ball to another kid.

"We're trying to get play into kids' hands," said Lori Asbury, the CDC's marketing director. "Our early efforts were about creating awareness that physical activity was important and fun for them. Now we're going to be much more about activation."

Yellowball will be given momentum online with contests for the most inspired play or the ball that is passed the most, and prizes like free music downloads given to every kid who touched the winning ball.

"When a kid approaches 13, they feel compelled to make a difference, have a voice and get behind a cause," said Chris Cancilla, vp-group creative director for Frankel, Chicago, which is charged with changing the behavior of Verb's 9- to 13-year-old target. "Play is an activity they have influence over."