With the healthcare debate increasingly dominating the nation’s political dialogue and advertising, advocacy groups—and the consultants hired by them—are looking for ways to stand out in what is an already oversaturated marketplace.
Probably the biggest difference between this summer’s healthcare campaigns and a traditional issue campaign is the dense fog of information already out there. The public is hearing tons of rhetoric from both sides of the healthcare debate, says John Del Cecato, a Democratic consultant at AKPD Message and Media, so ads don’t need to educate viewers from scratch. “You need to spend less time explaining why healthcare is important and why they should pay attention,” Del Cecato says. To cut through the pile of rhetoric already circulating on the airwaves and Internet, Del Cecato says effective ads will use testimonials and focus on ways to cue the viewer that the information in the ad is credible.
Running any issue advocacy campaign in the current political atmosphere is a tricky proposition, consultants say. Being effective requires knowing how to take advantage of the heightened awareness on the issue and stand out among a sea of ads. It also means recognizing which enemies to engage and whether to combat misinformation.
Americans United for Change, the labor-backed liberal group, took its own approach in an early August ad: It gave the enemy a name and a face.
The ad, which ran primarily on Washington, D.C. cable and was often sandwiched between other groups’ healthcare ads, targeted Ed Hanway, the outgoing CEO of Cigna health insurance. Hanway, the narrator says, “makes $12.2 million a year. That’s $5,883 an hour. Ed makes more in one day than the average worker makes all year long.” The ad uses Hanway as a stand-in villain for Republicans who oppose President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. “The Republican prescription for the insurance crisis: Be as rich as Ed,” the narrator says.
Consultants on both sides of the issue agree that in the healthcare debate, like most issue campaigns, it is easier from a messaging standpoint to drum up opposition than support for a policy. “The campaigns this year are about accomplishing something,” says Bob Creamer of the Strategic Consulting Group, a Democratic firm. “In general it is much easier to stop things than to make them happen. So it’s a big challenge.”
And groups that oppose the reform plans say the focus on the issue has sharpened their message. “Because there is such a high level of awareness,” says Rob Engstrom of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “the messaging is so clear against the public option and against employer mandates. Those two messages are so easy and focused.”
Ben Goddard of Goddard Claussen says the atmosphere during this year’s healthcare debate has been less aggressive than it was in the early 1990s. Goddard created the famous “Harry and Louise” ads in 1993 for the insurance industry, which were widely credited with derailing President Clinton’s healthcare reform efforts. Goddard says the early debate has been less divisive because there is “broad support” for some sort of reform. “We have seen a less contentious form of messaging” this year than in the early ‘90s, he says.
But Goddard noted that those industries that oppose a public, government-run healthcare option appear to be ramping up their campaigns. Health insurers placed a small ad at the end of July that indicated they were strongly opposed to the public option but didn’t say it outright. “It basically said we’re all for healthcare reform but we need a bipartisan solution,” Goddard says. “Anyone involved in the process knows that a bipartisan solution means no public plan.”
As the attacks from the opposition escalate, Democrats and their supporters will have to carefully pick when to engage. “It’s the classic conundrum,” Del Cecato says. “You don’t want to breathe life into a false charge by raising it yourself, but you don’t want to let false attacks go unanswered.” Del Cecato says the key is trying to figure out how much traction the attacks are getting among voters. If it doesn’t pass the smell test, he says, voters won’t buy it and it won’t be worth combating.