More than $1 billion will be spent on advertising for and against the Affordable Care Act, the comprehensive healthcare reform law known as Obamacare, before all is said and done, according to a media firm's analysis.
Counting money spent on ads since debate on the measure heated up in 2009 until the most recent spending records available, the Campaign Media Analysis Group, part of Kantar Media, found more than $500 million has already been spent on trying to sway public opinion and political races tied to the issue.
"The law both parties now call 'Obamacare' seems due to join Social Security and Medicare in one respect: as a public policy advertising phenom, a program that is reviled and perhaps eventually revered in political advertising for billions of dollars in ad spend to come," said Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for strategic initiatives at CMAG in a release accompanying the analysis. "Yet while Social Security and Medicare have been litigated on the airwaves for more than 40 years, CMAG expects the ACA to break the $1 billion mark by its fifth birthday."
Opponents of the legislation have outspent supporters by a 5-to-1 margin, according to CMAG's estimates, but that ratio will likely shift as implementation deadlines approach in the coming years, coinciding with the midterm elections. House Republicans have continued to work to unravel the legislation, arguing that it raises taxes and amounts to government overreach into the private sector, though their efforts to repeal the law have been dead in the water in the Democratically-controlled Senate.
"We expect Democrats on the ballot in 2014 to embrace the individual mandate in TV advertising after basically forfeiting the airwaves to Republicans and other critics for the past three years," Wilner said. "Once the ACA begins to impact voters, we think Democrats will have no choice but to embrace the upsides in advertising."
But conservatives also have plenty of ammo to use against the controversial law, Wilner noted.
"Even with the postponement of the employer mandate, some premium increases for employers already have kicked in," she said. "Some tax increases also will start to kick in. And, the ACA's recently formalized rule that almost all employers of 50-plus workers must cover contraception is another likely angle for some advertising by both pro-life and pro-choice organizations."
So far, the advertising has had a nominal impact on public opinion.
"Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows that public opinion about the ACA, while consistently more unfavorable than favorable, has remained relatively static," said Wilner, weighing a June poll found that showed a 35 percent approval versus 43 percent disapproval against a similar survey in May 2012, which found a 37 percent approval rating compared with 44 percent disapproval.
However, Wilner said the advertising war will likely have political consequences thanks to the timing of full implementation.
"Large segments of the U.S. population are about to be affected by ACA implementation while at the same time, they'll be making up their minds about how to vote in 2014," she said. "The Cook Political Report considers public sentiment about the ACA as one of its five key election factors to watch. Again, some of these ad sponsors will be unique to the ACA, but much of this spend will occur in the course of regular campaigning."
One Republican strategist who runs a top conservative political spending group says it was a savvy political move to pass the law in 2010 but delay full implementation to 2014.
"Clearly, it was an admission it was a train-wreck and delaying it until after Obama faces the voters for the last time was good for him – but not so good for Democrats in 2016," he says. "I suspect the general ads from political groups on this topic will continue to be less than effective, both those promoting the law and those opposing it."