A kid sits playing a video game on his TV while a bouncing ball frantically tries to get his attention. It nudges him, gets in his face and finally knocks the power cord out of the outlet. At last the boy gets the message, stands up and takes the ball outside to play. The tag line: YOUR BALL NEEDS YOU.
What's surprising about this irresistibly catchy ad is that it was created not by a fitness-advocacy group or a health organization but by Nickelodeon, a TV network aimed squarely at kids. Like any commercial network, Nickelodeon (or Nick, as it is universally called) is out to make money. Keeping viewers attached solidly to their seats is the traditional way to do that. But Nick also wants to be more than just a medium for selling toys and sugary processed food. "Our mantra is, what's good for kids is good for business," says Marva Smalls, chief of staff for Nick and its sister networks, including Nick at Nite and TV Land. "So we have a history of trying to help kids deal with tough issues."
About a year ago, Smalls and her colleagues decided to go after one of those issues: the decline of simple play in kids' lives. School districts were cutting out recess and physical-education (PE) classes to save money; kids in high-crime areas were afraid to go outside; organized sports were becoming high-stress activities, with parents getting into fistfights over disputed referee calls. And too many children were glued to the couch, playing video games and watching television.
So Nick put together a campaign it called Let's Just Play, which included not only on-air spots but also a series of events co-sponsored by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in six major cities, including Houston; Spokane, Wash.; Miami; and Atlanta. Thousands of kids showed up last summer to participate in all sorts of physical activities, and the program is expanding this year to take in more cities. Beyond that, Nick is planning to give more than half a million dollars in direct grants to schools and other organizations. The money will help reinstate PE classes and create after-school destinations where kids can play safely.
Nick isn't focusing on just physical activity. The network has commissioned research to understand how kids make eating choices. It's also working with food companies that use characters like SpongeBob SquarePants to decorate their packages with splashy blurbs filled with facts about nutrition. And that, says Smalls, will be great for business: "If we connect with kids and arm them with the tools they need to navigate difficult issues, then when they do want to watch television, they'll come back to us." --By Michael D. Lemonick