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In Healthcare Reform Ad Wars, One Tactic Emerging as Winner

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, August 19, 2009

The healthcare reform ad wars continue to heat up, with the estimated total spending for the past six months hitting $57 million.

In my last two columns I wrote about both the pro-reform campaigns (Pro-Healthcare Reform Ads Suffering an 'Identical Crisis') and the anti-reform campaigns (Scare Tactics the Standard for Anti-Healthcare Reform Ads).

I thought the anti-reform ads were dramatic and attention-grabbing, but also filled with half truths, outright lies, and scare tactics. (For example, one online ad claimed that in Massachusetts, if you don't have the right healthcare insurance, you could go to jail.)

The pro-reform ads, on the other hand, were so middle-of-the road and so closely followed the Obama administration script that they all ended up looking and sounding exactly alike. The anti-reform ads were rocky road; the pro-reform ads were vanilla.

And which ones do you think worked best? Well, this week the Obama administration starting backing off on the public insurance option. And the end-of-life debate, which was wildly mischaracterized by the anti-reform group, is now off the table. And that's not all: The majority of Americans now oppose healthcare reform, up from 45% in late June.

Now, I'm not saying that the anti-reform ads are completely responsible for these changes. But of the readers who weighed in on the topic on the HealthLeaders Media Web site and on the MarketShare blog, most agreed that ads that feature scare tactics, dramatics, and half truths work.

Take this comment from Stephen Texeira:

Scare tactics are, unfortunately, usually quite effective, particularly for Americans, and particularly when we think we might be losing something. These ads are not simply misleading, they are complete fabrications—well not complete, there is state called Massachusetts.

Because healthcare is a personal choice that affects all of us and our families, anything that scares us ultimately works.

The reality is, however, that healthcare reform is a complex and detailed issue, to which few of us are willing to devote enough time to understand it. And that's precisely what these ads play on: ignorance of the issues, ignorance of the facts. While I don't love ads that stretch the truth or omit facts to get their point across in a clear debate, they are usually seen through.

But when the stakes are high, issue is complicated, the ads are obviously lies, and the goal is to take advantage of ignorance, the ads have gone too far.

So, yes, these ads scare me as well, but for a different reason.

Chris Bevolo also weighed in, saying it's not just scary ads that are to blame for misconceptions about healthcare reform:

. . . This stuff drives me nuts. There are real problems with our healthcare system, and real ways to address it. No matter which side of the political aisle people are on, we should be having real conversations about the real choices we face. Instead, we're flooded with all this BS in the form of scare-oriented advertising from special interests.

Even worse, in my opinion, is the "mainstream" media, who can't seem to dig deep on this topic at all, and thus play on the surface level (forget about the talking head rants and sensationalism that fill the 24x7 news cycle).

Finally, politicians themselves who can't have honest discussions and resort to ridiculous claims about proposals and their own scare tactics. (See last week's Jon Stewart bit called "Healthraiser" for a humorous take on this.)

What's sad is that this type of stuff works, all too well. I see friends who I respect as smart, conscientious people voting "no" to the Facebook quiz "Are you in favor of a government run healthcare system?", when in fact no one is discussing such a thing. Scare tactics work, and that sucks.

Christine Ricci said that both kinds of ads can work, but questions whether they would really sway healthcare reform decisions.

Ads that have a high emotional impact tend to work well, so for individuals that make decisions based on emotions, this style of advertisement will make an impact. On the other hand, this is such a data-rich issue that the ads may perform better if they tie in data with the emotional advertising. A bigger concern is the extensive cost and resources it takes to develop ads like these. Given the tough economic times, perhaps those funds could be better allocated. People pretty much know where they stand on the issue, so I'm not sure advertisements will influence that too much.

Another reader, James, said he's looking for real debate—not rhetoric (and wouldn't that be a refreshing change in politics).

Unfortunately, there are far too many scare tactics being used and not nearly enough facts. I even searched news sites to try and get the facts instead of opinions, but very little is actually available. I hate to say that I think these ads are effective, but only because there isn't a control to compare them to. When no one really knows how this health care reform will affect them personally, they tend to buy into these types of ads. I am not a fan of scare tactics. I would much rather see the two sides discuss the issue so I can see the pros and cons and make up my own mind. That said, it has been shown that these ads do work.

On the microblogging site Twitter, the short answers to my questions about healthcare reform ads included the following:

  • @1samadams said true healthcare reform “has become a casualty of political bickering and power plays."
  • @trishatorrey agreed, adding that anti-reformers were using “gullible people to spread disinformation."

Adams replied that he posits, in a 1,000 page bill that no one in government has read, "it's ALL disinformation."

No surprise that there were a sprinkling of comments about healthcare reform in general as opposed to the way both sides are communicating their message. Reading those comments makes it clear that that James' wish for meaningful debate is just about as likely as someone in Massachusetts getting arrested and thrown in jail for not having health insurance.


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