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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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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 “ 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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