Guess who'll be America's third-biggest advertiser this coming year

Barack Obama, Mona Magnat, Hershey Garner, Richard Evans

Spend over a billion dollars on advertising in a year, and where does it get you? To being ranked America’s third-largest advertiser, that’s where.

According to Advertising Age rankings released July 8, it makes you a bigger spender than everyone except AT&T (number one with a $1.59 billion annual ad budget) and Verizon (number two with $1.43 billion).  And it makes you big enough to bump Chevrolet (a mere $958 million) out of the number-three spot.

So just who is this new giant on our nation’s advertising scene?

None other than Obamacare, that’s who.

“More than $1 billion will be spent on advertising for and against the Affordable Care Act,” wrote US News July 9, citing a report from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. And that’s not counting the “more than $500 million [that] has already been spent” – including a brace of currently running spots produced and placed by the former Obama for America campaign organization (now called Organizing for America) – “on trying to sway public opinion and political races tied to the issue.”

Not quite the same

But there are four big differences between the coming deluge of Obamacare advertising and the Chevrolet campaign it’s set to supplant in third place.

First, while Chevrolet and its parent company are only about 29 percent government-owned, Obamacare is 100 percent all government, all the time.

Second, Chevrolet spends advertising money mostly on mainstream print, broadcast and online media (except for a few million wasted on a soccer-team sponsorship in a country where Chevrolets aren’t sold). But Obamacare advertisers are throwing their billion bucks around like Weimar money, says the June 10 Washington Post Wonkblog:

In Connecticut, selling Obamacare involves renting an airplane. Oregon might try to reel in hipsters with branded coffee cups for their lattes. And in neighboring Washington, the effort could get quite intimate: The state is interested in sponsoring portable toilets at concerts in an effort to reach uninsured young adults.

Third, Chevrolet advertising, while often misleading and inept, at least delivered a pro-brand message. But the Obamacare advertising will be run both by the plan’s allies and its opponents. Past history is no guarantee of future performance, but if current trends continue, more advertising will be anti than pro. But chances are, they won’t.

Over the three years since it was passed, “opponents of the legislation have outspent supporters by a 5-to-1 margin, according to CMAG’s estimates,” US News notes, “but that ratio will likely shift as implementation deadlines approach in the coming years, coinciding with the midterm elections.”

In a CMAG press release, vice president for strategic initiatives Elizabeth Wilner predicted

We expect Democrats on the ballot in 2014 to embrace the individual mandate in TV advertising after basically forfeiting the airwaves to Republicans and other critics for the past three years. Once the ACA begins to impact voters, we think Democrats will have no choice but to embrace the upsides in advertising.

Even with the postponement of the employer mandate, some premium increases for employers already have kicked in. Some tax increases also will start to kick in. And, the ACA’s recently formalized rule that almost all employers of 50-plus workers must cover contraception is another likely angle for some advertising by both pro-life and pro-choice organizations.

Not particularly effective

The fourth difference is that Chevrolet’s advertising moved the needle – not a whole lot, but at least a little. The Obamacare advertising most likely won’t.

According to Wilner, “Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows that public opinion about the ACA, while consistently more unfavorable than favorable, has remained relatively static.” A June poll showed 43 percent disapproval versus only 35 percent approval. In a similar poll taken 13 months earlier, the numbers were 44 percent against and 37 percent for. That apparent slight movement may just be statistical noise, but it’s not trending in Obamacare’s favor.

That “estimated $1 billion figure would rival the $1.3 billion spent on TV ads during the 2012 presidential campaign,” says Yahoo! News. “According to CMAG, $1.1 billion was spent ahead of Obama’s election victory over Mitt Romney, not including $200 million in local cable advertising.”

All in a midterm election year.

And all, apparently, for nothing.

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