Stupid Advertising Tricks
By now, you probably have heard something about an odd, whiny twosome called Harry and Louise. They star in television ads sponsored by the Health Insurance Association of America as a married couple who express great fears about bureaucracy and rationed care in Bill Clinton's health reform plan. Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed them for the Business Roundtable's decision to oppose the president's plan. The president singled them out as a negative influence on public discourse. So feared were the infamous couple, in fact, that former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski negotiated with their sponsors to keep the ads out of the districts of two key committee members.
To listen to the complaints, you might think that Harry and Louise have become the Taster's Choice couple of health reform, running in prime time, nationwide. They haven't. In fact, the ads cost $12 million and did run in some targeted states, but mostly they were aimed at a smaller circle--inside the beltway. The strategy was as simple as it was cost-effective: Create a stir inside Washington, and the press will create the stir for you outside Washington. Bypass the voters, but don't worry. They'll hear about the squabbling as they watch the clips from the ad on network TV. In fact, a new study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication shows that news of the White House battle with Harry and Louise took up more airtime than the HIAA could ever buy. It's a brilliant scam--announce a media campaign, show the ads to the press, buy limited time in New York and Washington, get free publicity.
The political conversation is not between the voters and their leaders but among the elites. Hardly anything could be more insular than the Democratic National Committee's recent release of its own Kabuki version of Harry and Louise--a purportedly comedic takeoff that was so inside the beltway that even insiders called it silly. Similarly parochial, only with more purpose, were the ads run by the Project for a Republican Future. The group spent $50,000 to buy time on CNN and in some districts. The intention, says Chairman William Kristol, was to call passive Republicans to arms--a sort of televised op-ed piece. The fact that the ads were then discussed on television was all part of the game plan. So, too, with the Health Care Reform Project, whose ads taking on Pizza Hut as an unfair employer were nixed by Washington stations--inspiring a widely reported controversy.
Of course, health care reform has prompted all varieties of advertising, to the tune of more than $50 million. Some of it is even devoted to the oldest goal of political persuasion: targeting specific districts with negative ads to let members know that if they misbehave someone will raise money to beat them. Yet with the barrage coming from so many competing special interests, the singular message left with the voters is one of distrust and uncertainty. And if the public is confused, it won't be helped any by the DNC's decision to use TV ads to target its own wavering Democrats. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a deficit-conscious moderate up for re-election, went ballistic upon discovering his party's plot, accurately calling the idea "stupid" and ultimately self-defeating: Now the victims must show that the ads have had no impact, save maybe to make them dig in their heels against their own president.
The reason TV ads are such a big part of the psychological warfare over health reform is that they work. Members elected through the power of television are likely to believe they can be blackmailed by it. Annenberg's Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political advertising, makes the crucial point: While the ads may be ineffective, the members can get conned if they believe the public is listening. Harry and Louise would just have been two more whiny yuppies had the media not taken up their lament.
Lately, the press has spent more time promoting than debunking these political ads. Some deconstruction is in order. And as the health debate moves to center stage in Congress, doesn't it deserve as much airtime as O.J. Simpson? The extended coverage of the gulf-war debate is a good model: When given a tough decision, the public is smart enough to understand the choices. It just needs to be included in the discussion.
This story appears in the August 1, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.