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The Hard Sell

No amount of advertising will make Obamacare attractive to the young.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Add LeBron James to the ranks of Obamacare pitchmen: The basketball star is featured in new ads urging his fans to sign up at HealthCare.gov. “You can go there to find an affordable health plan that’s part of the health care law.”

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

The ads are just the latest in the ongoing marketing barrage for Obamacare. Californians are currently being hit with a new round of ads—this time they’re being asked, “Are You In?” i.e., part of the in-crowd of soccer players and street musicians who have signed up at the exchange. The state’s Obamacare campaign is slated to spend some $80 million this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. Which is just a fraction of the money being poured into the effort around the country, money being funneled through national groups such as Enroll America, which came out last month with a new slate of commercials featuring singing dogs and cats, and state groups such as the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative—famous for the ad featuring a woman leering at a maybe beau and thinking, “My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers.”

The ads may spark buzz and get attention, but are they actually getting consumers to sign up for Obamacare, in particular the young consumers needed to balance the actuarial tables? If the marketing campaigns for the Affordable Care Act so far are any indication, the new efforts aren’t likely to have much to show for the millions being spent.

Take the “Cover Oregon” campaign, which has dumped barrels of money into youth marketing. They targeted Portland slackers with TV spots featuring hipsters and hip-hoppers. There was much strumming and warbling, with treacly lyrics such as “To care for each one, each daughter and son; Live Long in Oregon.” The state’s Obamacare promotional efforts have included sponsoring concerts at which banners were hung reading “Enjoy Life and CYA.” And yet, for all its exquisite attunement to the sensibilities of the local plaid-and-beard set, the campaign hasn’t just failed, it has failed spectacularly. Of all those who’ve signed up on the Oregon exchange, the Oregonian reports, only 18 percent are in the 18-34 age bracket. The state is tied with West Virginia for the worst showing among young adults. Why the epic shortfall?

Ads have failed to deliver because Obamacare’s promoters have asked too much of them. Their overconfidence in the power of marketing is rooted in a quaint disdain for the evils of advertising. It’s long been a tenet of liberal faith that advertising has nefarious, mind-controlling power. Vance Packard sounded the alarm in 1957 with The Hidden Persuaders, warning that advertisers surreptitiously exploited consumers’ “compelling needs.” Advertising doesn’t just encourage behavior, goes the old antibusiness argument,
it compels us to act, bulldozes our better judgment, skews any rational calculation of self-interest.

It’s an alarm that keeps clanging away, as with the foodie scolds who tell us that children want hamburgers and fries not because their little palates prefer the stuff to Brussels sprouts, but because they have been brainwashed by the irresistible inducements of commercials with a clown. Typical was the White House event in September at which Michelle Obama declared that kids need to be protected from junk-food marketing because they “believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it’s on TV.”

If this is your view of marketing—that advertising trickery forces people to act against their own interests—then it only makes sense to turn to advertising in earnest if you’ve got a product to hawk that people overwhelmingly dislike. The left has long complained that advertising is compulsion; but now, when it comes to Obamacare, the prospect of compulsion is suddenly very appealing.

The Obama camp’s overconfidence in the power of advertising may also owe something to their experience in political advertising. There’s no doubt that political ads can be tremendously effective: The Obama campaign wielded them masterfully in caricaturing Mitt Romney as a heartless, woman-hating 1-percenter. But the political hands are wrong to think success with political advertising translates into success with product advertising (even if the product has political overtones).

For starters, campaign advertising is predominantly negative advertising; and it is much easier to persuade people to think ill of someone (or something) than it is to convince them someone or something is good. Beyond that, campaign advertisements involve persuading voters to make judgments about products—candidates—that they aren’t in a position to test personally. Few voters have any direct and meaningful contact with candidates. And who’s to say what a candidate will actually do if elected? Voters often have little to go on other than advertisements.

But it’s much harder to shape people’s views when their opinions are informed by their direct experience. Bob Fennis and Wolfgang Stroebe write in The Psychology of Advertising, “People who are familiar with a product and confident in their ability to judge the quality of that product are unlikely to be susceptible to the distorting influence of advertising messages.”

In other words, people aren’t idiots: They are hard to sway with advertising when they have firsthand knowledge of a product. If they don’t have firsthand experience, advertising may convince them to give a product a try. But then, if the product is lousy, that disappointment is what the consumer remembers, not the fictions propagated by the advertiser.

Mad Men-era advertising guru Bill Bernbach—whose firm, Doyle Dane Bernbach, was responsible for the legendary VW “Lemon” campaign—knew as much. He declared, “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.” And he was hardly the first to make the observation. Albert Lasker is credited with inventing modern advertising a century ago. According to his biographers, Lasker regularly “told his clients that good advertising couldn’t rescue a bad product or a bad company.” In advertising circles Lasker’s and Bernbach’s insight has long since been simplified into an adage: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.”

Which doesn’t bode well for Obamacare. The more people those ever-so-clever ads send to the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the more people will discover that the plans involve radically limited choices of doctors and hospitals, gob-smacking deductibles, and, for many, dismaying premiums.

You could say that Obamacare is the Edsel of our age, a product as intensely disliked as it is endlessly hyped. Every time the president comes forward to declare—as he did in his appearance with Zach Galifianakis—that “HealthCare.gov works great now,” one can hear echoes of the desperate Ford advertisements of the late ’50s declaring, in the face of all evidence, “Everyone who has seen it knows—with us—that the Edsel is a success.”

So bring on LeBron. And go ahead: Sing, you kitties, sing.

Eric Felten is a writer in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue.

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