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Madison Avenue Meets Obamacare

While browsing through the television channels Sunday afternoon during one of those interminable commercial breaks in a professional football game, we happened upon an advertisement for Obamacare. Although the spot didn’t mention Obamacare by name, it was extolling the wonders of the healthcare.gov web site that was intended to bring all the bountiful benefits of President Barack Obama’s namesake health care law to a grateful public. The very perky and pretty people featured in the advertisement seemed grateful, indeed, as they excitedly chanted the ad campaign’s catchphrase of “We’re covered!”
At the risk of sounding cynically suspicious of anything that Madison Avenue and the Washington bureaucracy might join forces to concoct, we’re pretty sure those grateful people are paid actors. They’re all perkier and prettier than any real people of our acquaintance, for one thing, and their gratitude for Obamacare greatly exceeds the normal person’s. They also look quite prosperous and up-to-date and free of any noticeable existing pre-conditions, hardly the sort of involuntarily uninsured hard-luck cases that Obamacare was intended to help, and given the widely-publicized difficulties that people have encountered in slogging through the healtcare.gov web site’s endless glitches, and given how many of those lucky few have experienced sticker shock at the prices posted at the end of the frustrating process, it seems unlikely that a sufficient number of people so very grateful could have been rounded up on such short notice since the law recently went into effect. The odds that these extraordinarily lucky few would all turn out to be so perky, pretty, prosperous, and up-to-date seem staggering. If our suspicions are correct they’re probably dues-paying members of the Screen Actors Guild and are grateful their policies might yet be protected by one of those waivers the government has been handing out to unions, which would explain how they managed to seem so darned sincere when chanting the “We’re covered!” catchphrase.
Still, it was an impressive piece of advertising. The spot had the same expensive look about it as the ones the big corporations were running to make their dubious pitches, with professional graphics and brisk editing and no oleaginous pitchmen wildly swinging their arms as they scream for the viewer to come on down and take advantage of their low, low prices. A peppy and professional soundtrack and the bright lighting and clear cinematography added to the upbeat feelings the ad inspires, much like in the ads intended to make buyers feel good about their choice of dishwashing lotion or cancer treatment center, and the fact that the ad avoided the words “Obamacare” or even the euphemistic “Affordable Care Act” suggests that it was carefully subjected to the scrutiny of countless focus groups.
Even with such formidable marketing, however, Obamacare will likely prove a tough sell. Insurance premiums are going up in most states, millions of people will lose the policies they had been promised they could keep, employers everywhere are offering only part-time work rather than deal with the costs and paperwork that now come with a full-time job, and the whole scheme requires persuading healthy young people with low-paying jobs and bleak prospects to pay higher prices for more insurance than they currently need. The ad we saw seems designed to convince the middle-class people least affected by Obamacare that it’s all for the good, those deficits and unemployment numbers and the potential loss of coverage notwithstanding, but it won’t do much to get that uninsured twenty-something with the rock band tattoo to slog through a computer program designed by the Three Stooges and pay money he doesn’t have for something he doesn’t need. Better ads than Obamacare have failed to create a market for better products than Obamacare, and the ones that make their pitch to the wrong audience always fail.
Perhaps some shrewd ad man can come up with something better suited to the young and healthy and uninsured, but it is hard to for an amateur to imagine what it might be. The pig on some other insurance company’s commercials seems to be popular with the young folk, but we wonder how many of them are signing up for his product, although we’re not sure what it. That “Flo” woman who represents another of the insurance has a youthful appeal and irreverent sense of humor, and looks as if she might even sport a tattoo or two beneath her white uniform, but we’re not sure what company she’s selling. If all else fails there’s also the old honesty shtick, and we can envision an ad with a hip-hop soundtrack and fashionably unshaven spokesmen telling a young audience that they voted for Obama and his hope and change slogans so now it’s time to pay up. Boondoggles such as Obamacare don’t come cheap, the ads could say, and neither do the advertising campaigns required to make you like it.

— Bud Norman

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