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Get the message?

A new media blitz--plus the powers of the federal government, business and advocates--just might get Americans moving.

January 02, 2006|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

TZIVIA SCHWARTZ-GETZUG leans forward, listening hard to a message from the U.S. government. On the screen in front of her, a man is walking his dog when the dog pulls away to investigate a lumpy parcel under a tree. "Leave it," his master tells him. "It's just an old double chin. Someone probably lost it playing here in the park with their kids."

"Oh my God, that is hysterical!" says the Sherman Oaks mother of three. "Very clever."

Schwartz-Getzug likes the "selling idea" of the government's new campaign to get Americans fit: that taking just a few small steps to improve diet and boost exercise can make people healthier, slimmer, even sexier. But will she -- and millions of other Americans -- buy the message?

This time, they might because the sellers have come prepared. Flushed with success from the anti-tobacco wars, they now know more about the American people -- and how to influence them. And this time, the sellers are joining forces.

In the last 18 months, the federal government, health advocates and private companies have begun to merge their efforts against fat and inactivity. The Department of Health and Human Services has turned to a top Madison Avenue advertising firm and a leading Internet design company to create the Small Steps campaign. Media companies are rethinking their long-standing practice of marketing junk food to kids. And health advocacy organizations such as the American Heart Assn. are forming partnerships with companies willing to spread their message to a seen-it-all, heard-it-all American public.

"Very few behaviors change because someone saw an ad. You need social norms in place, environmental supports, the products, the placement, all the things that make the right decisions easy," says Carol Schechter, director of health communications for the Academy for Educational Development, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

Thus far, campaigns aimed at selling healthy behavior have persuaded Americans, in large part, to wear seat belts, quit smoking and refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

But consider the 22.5% of Americans who smoke, the 18% who never wear seat belts and the 17,000 killed each year by drunk drivers, and one understands the limits of health campaigns. Listen to Americans like Schwartz-Getzug talk about the crush of demands upon them and the temptations they face daily, and one perceives a sobering truth: Marketing campaigns aimed at changing behavior face long odds.

A full-time community-relations specialist with the U.S. Jewish Federation and mother of three kids ages 5 to 13, Schwartz-Getzug can't fathom how she could find time to get to the park, much less play with her kids there. Besides, she says, "I'm not convinced that those little steps actually have an impact.... Taking the stairs certainly does something, but it doesn't replace what's really needed."

She's what New York advertising giant McCann-Erickson Worldwide calls a "jaded can't-doer" -- a parent too busy to eat right and exercise and too discouraged to launch a lifestyle overhaul. Not all Americans have grown overweight or suffer the health consequences of inactivity, but many share Schwartz-Getzug's personal assessment. "I'm still relatively healthy," she says. "But I'm not in very good shape, and I don't feel very good."

A walk after dinner sounds nice, she says, but by then, it's time to get the kids to bed. The 30 minutes of exercise a day recommended as the minimum for a healthy lifestyle? "I'm always trying to figure out where to find that, and it always comes down to less sleep," she says.

Coaxing out good behavior

It's clear that the straightforward approach to changing Americans' behavior will no longer work. Simply gathering the evidence, donning the white coat, warning the public and recommending a course of action won't cut it.

Today, campaigns to prevent HIV and AIDS, discourage smoking, fight obesity and urge cancer screenings use humor, sex and sophisticated market research. Public health advocates segment their markets and tailor their pitches to the sensibilities and media consumption habits of particular groups -- preschoolers, teens, Latinos, African Americans, parents of school-age kids. They push fitness and health using one of the advertising profession's oldest principles: Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

These new campaigns offer encouragement by instant message, downloadable cellphone games with disease-prevention ideas, reality shows, websites with attitude and information, and potty humor for kids.

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