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Obamacare Ad Wars

12:00 AM, Aug 20, 2009 • By LIBBY STERNBERG
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Anti-Obamacare: Senior citizens are the target of a well-done ad by the 60-plus association featuring historical photo stills of the "greatest generation," all with the message that "seniors have sacrificed" for this country, but "now in their most vulnerable period," Congress wants to pay for health care reform by cutting 500 billion from Medicare. As the voiceover tells us what that will mean (fewer doctors and important procedures) dated citations from USA Today, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Washington Post appear on the screen. The closing lines tell us that "many of our politicians are designing a plan that they won't use themselves." A lot of information is crammed in this ad about policy--its cost, its impact on seniors, and a possible double standard of those who are designing the policy.

Pro-Obamacare: An AARP ad, on the other hand, features a visual of a screaming ambulance, cut off in the road by two cars obviously representing the special interest groups blocking reform, the message the voiceover reinforces. The voiceover also assures viewers this reform won't ration care. This last bit is a nod to policy concerns, but it's so brief and lacking in depth that it might as well have been left out--it lacks specificity. The bulk of the ad merely repeats the "special interests blocking reform" message. Politics, not policy.

Anti-Obamacare: Conservatives for Patients Rights has a number of ads that include some hard-hitting specifics, or case histories, including one that shows patients being "squeezed" off the screen by various subtitles declaring that reform raises taxes by 600 billion, adds a trillion to the federal deficit, new rules that could hike health insurance premiums, and people still might end up on the government-run health plan. The visuals are boring, but the message is simple and focuses on policy--its cost and coverage implications.

Another earlier CPR ad featured real "victims" of nationalized health care systems in Canada. A similar ad focused on stories in Britain. The message: "Before Congress rushes to overhaul health care, listen to those who have government run health care." Policy concerns about rationed care are the focus of both ads.

As this round-up illustrates, opponents of health care reform are using a lot of specifics--case histories, examples of what rationing could look like, citations to news articles, stubborn facts about the spending involved. These ads give voice to the skepticism of many Americans.

In the face of such skepticism, generalities don't work. For example, it's not enough to go before crowds saying you're not going to "pull the plug on grandma." Even people who haven't read the health care bills know that end-of-life counseling is in them, and that reformers have talked about containing costs by cutting out so-called unnecessary drugs and procedures. Americans fear where that kind of talk could lead--if not exactly to death panels, to some process where strangers, paid or reimbursed by the government, may cut off care in some way.

Until supporters of reform start addressing those concerns with real references to the bills involved and adequate explanations rebutting critics' claims, they'll continue to struggle. But that might be the core of supporters' problem--they won't be able to rebut critics' claims if the claims are true. It's far easier in that case to focus on politics, not policy, as most of the ads supporting the Democratic legislation do.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist, the author of four young adult mysteries (the first of which was an Edgar finalist) and two humorous women's fiction novels. Her latest novel Fire Me (written as Libby Malin), was released in May.