The 'Toon That Roared

As a youngster, Alice Cahn, now VP of social responsibility for Cartoon Network, was tall for her age, and often felt excluded by other kids because of it. Lee Blevins, the network’s senior director of marketing, became the target in a game of “tripping wars”: A bully organized a group to take Blevins down, leaving him with a dislocated shoulder. As for me, I was teased mercilessly by my peers for being chubby—to the point that years later and many pounds lighter, I still saw a fat girl in the mirror.

So it’s no surprise that my heart went out to 9-year-old Jeremy and 14-year-old Alye when they talked about being called “fat” by bullies in Cartoon Network’s first original documentary, “Speak Up,” airing Sunday, March 18, at 5:30 p.m. ET/PT with an encore at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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For the past two years, Cartoon Network has been spearheading a bold pro-social initiative, “Stop Bullying: Speak Up,” “which seeks to empower all kids to take part in the growing movement to help bring an end to bullying,” according to Blevins.

Blevins, Cahn and Cartoon Network’s programming and marketing teams have gone to great lengths to engage kids in an issue that children feel strongly about—and in which the kids themselves feel they can be agents of change.

This year, the cornerstone of the initiative is the moving “Speak Up” documentary, in which brave and articulate youngsters talk candidly about their first-hand experiences as either bully, victim or bystander. Joining them with their own personal stories are several kid-friendly celebrities, including the three young hosts of Cartoon Network’s “Dude, What Would Happen” (CJ Manigo, Ali Sepasyar and Jackson Rogow); Chris Webber (five-time NBA All-Star); Matt Wilhelm (pro BMX champion); and NASCAR drivers Trevor Bayne, Jeff Burton and Joey Logano.  

Viewers will also have the opportunity to ask questions of renowned bullying prevention expert Rosalind Wiseman with the network’s first online Q&A, happening before, during and following the documentary airings.

“We felt that a documentary created with young people for young people showed our long-term commitment to our audience of kids ages 6–14,” says Cahn. “Quite honestly, it would have been much easier for us to run something for adults on our sister network, CNN, and then just direct kids to watch it with their parents. But we wanted this to be special to Cartoon Network viewers.”

So how does a network better known for entertaining kids than educating them go about marketing a campaign on a serious subject like bullying? Blevins says they’re employing the same successful techniques that the network has used to get its bazillion fans for shows like “Adventure Time” or “Ben 10.” In this case, that means:

Doing your homework: “Pre- and post research is an important aspect of every campaign,” says Cahn. This meant starting at the very beginning and doing research on what social issues kids felt strongly about and felt they could do something about. (Kids felt strongly about the recession and war, too, but felt powerless in those areas.)

Joining the team: Once the subject of any campaign is chosen, the network employs a team approach that starts at the top with the network’s president and chief operating officer, Stuart Snyder. “I start by holding a meeting with Stu and the department heads where we agree upon a call to action for the campaign,” explains Blevins. “Then each department, from advertising and promotions to affiliate relations and PR, assigns team members—usually about 30 to 40 people—who become my partners on the campaign. Everyone has a sense of ownership on the project.”  

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Making friends: Cartoon Network’s “partnership” philosophy applies both internally and externally. External partners on the bullying campaign included the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, the U.S. Department of Justice, an advisory panel of nationally recognized bullying prevention experts, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Anti-Defamation League, Barnes & Noble—and, no surprise, Facebook, to help get the word out about solution-oriented resources.

Taking the test: Nothing on these campaigns is left to chance. “Our research told us that it’s important to be very literal in our messaging,” says Blevins. “We even test our promos to ensure they’re sending the message we’re aiming for before we launch them on-air and on our site.” (On that note, I recommend that everyone watch the clever promo with the three “Dudes” hosts and their mini-me versions. Genius.)

Being true to your school: The pro-social action team stays true to the signature look, style and personality of Cartoon Network—“down to the bright yellow, pink and blue color palette selected for the website and print ads!” says Blevins. “We treated “Speak Up” like any other new animated or live-action show on Cartoon Network.”

Making a play date: Taking a cue from the online presence for Cartoon Network’s entertainment shows, “Speak Up’s” website includes a variety of fun interactive activities—games, polls, bonus video, collectible badges, and even the chance to create a comic strip and have it featured on the site.

Showing off (in a good way): “Speak Up” got the usual stellar PR treatment from the network, which hosted a kid-friendly premiere for the documentary at the Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., yesterday. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius joined CEO Snyder in hosting the event; other special guests included bullying prevention expert Dr. Duane Thomas and Aaron Cheese, one of the youths featured in the documentary.

Trusting the kids: Cartoon Network believes you can’t just talk about a problem, you have to offer a solution. In this case, kids themselves can create the solutions, and the network offers plenty of resources—on TV and online—to help them “speak up” to the issue of bullying.

Says Cahn, “The good news is that kids at this age believe in their power to change things for the better.”

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