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Is There a Healthcare Reform Ad That Will Resonate with the Public?

Les Masterson, for HealthLeaders Media, August 6, 2009

As Congress flees the nation's capital for the August recess, the location of the healthcare debate moves from the Beltway and into town halls and meeting places.

Many Congresspeople are using their time away from Washington to host town meetings in hopes of hearing from constituents—and promoting their own beliefs about healthcare reform.

With that change of location also brings a larger advertising push. Stakeholders and activists have spent more than $52 million on getting out their message, while galvanizing their base and swaying the undecideds.

America's Health Insurance Plans, Democratic and Republican National committees, Americans United for Change, Health Care for America Now, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America are just some of the organizations spending millions on pushing their health reform agenda.

Out of these ads, one wonders if there is one that will resonate with the public and we as a nation will look back 20 years from now and say, "That was the turning point in the healthcare reform debate of 2009." In other words, is there a Harry and Louise ad this year?

The jury is still out on that question, but marketing experts say there is one major difference between the healthcare reform debate of the 1990s and the current-day discussion—the Internet.

"The ad that becomes iconic in 2009 won't be because of the exposure it receives on television," says Tracy Weise, principal of Weise Communications in Denver. "This time the ad will have to have viral presence on the Internet. Look for it to be discussed in blogs, mentioned on tweets, and discussed on YouTube. The Internet chatter will feed the television chatter before the ad will have staying power."

Gabrielle DeTora, a private strategic healthcare consultant, says TV ads have lost importance. They have been replaced by word-of-mouth campaigns through social media sites and the Internet.

"The real power here is not in the TV spots, but how they will be used to build word-of-mouth and political traction in the digital arena," she says.

Internet users are watching commercials on YouTube, but whether the messages are registering is in question.

Return of Harry and Louise
The original "Harry and Louise" actors that helped defeat healthcare reform during the Clinton administration are back at the kitchen table. Though they were worried about health reform in the 1990s, a new ad, sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Families USA, supports health reform.

So, will the 2009 Harry and Louise ad work?  "While the message is simple and to the point, it's too broad for most consumers. 'A little more cooperation, a little less politics, we can get the job done this time,' is a message for politicians, not for consumers. If you think about the ad at all, you have to wonder: What do I do with that? What does that mean to me?" says Weise.

Simplicity is what made Harry and Louise resonate in the 1990s. "Harry and Louise did not want the government telling them what to do. Consumers never want the government telling them what to do. So the message worked. Unfortunately, the 2009 message seems too broad for Harry and Louise to effectively communicate," Weise adds.

Dan Dunlop, president of Jennings in Chapel Hill, NC, says political advertising is no different than other ads that try to connect with the viewer's personal values and ideology. One example of this is AHIP's "Illness" ad, he says.

"They convey this messaging well without getting sappy. It feels authentic. The DNC also does a good job with this in their spot title 'It's time.' They manage to make healthcare reform relevant, in very human terms. And they use what looks like real people in their ad to add an element of authenticity," says Dunlop.

DeTora points to the Americans United for Change ad as the best 30-second TV spot. "It is optimistic, powerful, and clear," she says. “The actors used reflect the diversity of Americans, but is clearly geared to a younger, more active Obama population. It discussed a few issues, such as protecting choice of doctors and offering a choice between private or public health insurance plans."

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