Politics trump professionalism in Obamacare advertising decisions


If predictions that Obamacare advertising will total more than $1 billion this coming year come true, the vast majority – more than 68 percent – will go to promoting the plan. “The total amount to be spent nationally on publicity, marketing and advertising will be at least $684 million, according to data compiled by The Associated Press from federal and state sources,” a July 24 report noted.

“As President Barack Obama’s health care law moves from theory to reality in the coming months,” the AP report continues, “its success may hinge on whether the best minds in advertising can reach one of the hardest-to-find parts of the population: people without health coverage.”

But that may be wrong on two counts:

  • The agencies chosen for the statewide campaigns aren’t necessarily “the best minds in advertising.”
  • According to at least one source, the target audience isn’t “people without health coverage,” but rather voters in swing states where Democratic representatives and senators appear vulnerable in next year’s November elections.

Copycat campaign

While AP may write about “the best minds in advertising,” a closer look at the three agencies they mentioned suggests that wasn’t exactly the main selection criterion.

Pilgrim, the Denver-based agency handling Colorado advertising, has a little health care and PSA experience and a lot of local government experience. Their ads’ message is that signing up for Obamacare is like winning a horse race, hitting the jackpot at a gambling casino or winning the World Series.

Their tag line – “When health insurance plans compete, there’s only one winner: You” – reads like a straight lift from the 1990s campaign that put Lending Tree on the map – “When banks compete, you win.”

Seattle-based GMBB, which is handling its state’s disproportionately large budget (and, for some reason, also Vermont’s), has an office in the other Washington (DC) and specializes in political – i.e., government and election – advertising, the latter for Democratic candidates, up to presidential campaigns at the state level.

The Jayne Agency of Chicago specializes in websites, direct mail and branding design, not advertising in mainstream media and, according to their posted portfolio, has little to no related experience.

Good tactic, bad strategy?

That notwithstanding, they did have the brains to interview more than 50 patients at an emergency room, which is where people without health insurance and those on Medicaid go for their primary health care. Their campaign will feature real people telling their health stories, and their campaign line – “Don’t Just Get By” – works well on a tactical level.

But it may backfire strategically by appealing mainly to the sick, who are going to sign up anyhow. The stated purpose of all the enrollment advertising is to persuade young, healthy people – who’ve historically avoided buying health insurance because at their age they don’t really need it – to sign up so that their premiums and general lack of claims will subsidize the sicker folks’ insurance and treatment.

Budgeting disparities

The biggest expense in advertising is media costs, and those vary directly in proportion to size of target audience – but not here.

The government’s ad spending will range all the way from 46¢ per capita in Wisconsin to $9.23 per capita in West Virginia, where population is much smaller and media rates – particularly cable air time rates – are dirt-cheap.

Texas, with three times as many uninsureds as Illinois, is getting only one-fourth as much ad money to promote enrollment.

In New Jersey, where about 1.3 million people lack health insurance, tax dollars are buying about $4.8 million worth of advertising. But for Washington state, where the number of uninsureds (960,000) is lower, the ad budget ($28 million) is almost six times higher.

October, 2013, or November, 2014?

In a July 24 television interview, Karl Rove suggested a possible explanation:

[T]hey are buying New Orleans and Charlotte, North Carolina. They’re not buying Los Angeles. They’re not buying New York. They’re not buying Chicago. They’re not buying Boston. They’re not buying San Francisco. They’re not buying six of the ten largest markets in America. But they’re going to buy TV ads to sing the praises of Obamacare in New Orleans and Charlotte, North Carolina. What about those markets? Why those markets? Well, those are in battleground states with US Senate races where the Democratic incumbent voted for Obamacare and is defending their vote. They’re buying a bunch of markets in states with Republican governors who are up for reelection next year. They’re not buying in the biggest markets. They’re not buying in Los Angeles or New York but they’re buying in places where they will have a political impact.

In other words, all that ad spending may be more about the elections in November, 2014, than about October 1, 2013, when Obamacare enrollment’s supposed to start.

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