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The administration even tried to capitalize on the internet "doge meme," which, if you haven't seen it, is about as awkward to explain as it is dumb. Superimposed on a picture of a Shiba Inu dog in colorful Comic Sans font it says, "So health insurance. Very benefits. Wow. Many coverage. Much affordable."
Another White House attempt to reach millennials by partnering up with Internet start-up PolicyMic turned into a debacle when the organization considered staging a contest in which "free health care" was the prize. Given the law's astronomical price tag, the White House decided that this was not a helpful message, and shut it down. Indeed, with each new administration press release touting a new Obamacare promotional effort for the "YouTube generation," the White House looks increasingly out of touch.
Brosurance and Birth Control
But at least the White House's efforts have been merely stupid, rather than categorically offensive. The Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado Education-the same organizations behind the website ThanksObamacare.org-were pilloried nationally for a cluster of ads targeted at millennials. One was a print ad showing a couple of guys doing a keg stand and urging them to get "brosurance." Another showed a young chick standing next to a cocky Lothario and brandishing her birth control pills. The ad copy was more than a little revolting: "OMG, he's hot! Let's hope he's as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him under the covers. Thanks Obamacare!"
These ads weren't produced by some marginal left-wing outfit. The Colorado Consumer Health Initiative's "ACA Implementation Fund Project" is, according to the organization's website, underwritten by "the Atlantic Philanthropies, the California Endowment, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation to ensure effective and consumer focused implementation of the Affordable Care Act." Liberal foundations, many with close ties to the White House, have played a large and, at times, questionable role in selling the law.
According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in April, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made a phone call last year soliciting funds for Obamacare's flagging Enroll America initiative from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which promptly coughed up $13 million for the effort (implausibly, the foundation denied that its gift had anything to do with the phone call). HHS also solicited Kaiser Foundation Health Plans and Hospitals, Ascension Health, and Johnson & Johnson for nonfinancial help with Obamacare's enrollment plan, which is problematic when you consider that HHS also regulates these same organizations.
Aside from inappropriately wielding the implicit threat of its regulatory powers, HHS also spent heavily to shape the debate about Obamacare, with arguably effective yet still problematic results.
For instance, the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank, has been churning out a series of uniformly positive studies on the beneficial effects of Obamacare. According to the organization's findings, Obamacare has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by 5.4 million, will not have a negative effect on employment, and will encourage 1.5 million Americans to either leave their jobs, become self-employed, or take early retirement. These studies have generated a blizzard of positive headlines for Obamacare, but what's almost never mentioned in the press coverage is how they were funded. Since 2010, the Urban Institute has received $58,942,510 in grants directly from HHS, according to USASpending.gov.
And when it comes to manipulating media coverage of the law, there's at least one instance in which the HHS cut out the middleman altogether. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber has been one of the most prominent defenders of the law, cranking out op-eds and making frequent TV appearances. In 2010, it emerged that he had obtained nearly $400,000 in consulting contracts with the Department of Health and Human Services for "technical assistance." Gruber insisted these contracts had nothing to do with his public opinions, but shortly after his ties to the administration became known, The New York Times ran a correction on a recent op-ed it had published by Gruber: "Had editors been aware of Professor Gruber's government ties, the Op-Ed page would have insisted on disclosure or not published his article."
Ultimately, the problem with using tax dollars for Obamacare propaganda is that we don't know what we don't know. Outlets such as Cosmo that actually own up to promoting unpopular White House initiatives are rare, and even then private meetings at the White House aren't suggestive of transparency. Despite some press coverage of a few high-profile asks-the NFL mercifully declined the White House's Obamacare overtures-we really don't know the extent or legality of the White House's solicitations. There's more than enough evidence of malfeasance to warrant concern, yet as we've seen with the Urban Institute and Jonathan Gruber, the media are pretty incurious about where all this pro-Obamacare information is coming from.
Even more disturbing is that the ambitious Obamacare marketing campaign went well beyond the typical awareness initiatives sponsored by government, making forays into the much more opaque world of popular culture. In 2012, California's Obamacare exchange spent at least $900,000 hiring the marketing firm Ogilvy to do P.R. as part of an effort that would enlist "Hollywood, an industry whose major players have been supportive of President Obama and his agenda," according to The New York Times. The effort was said to be working on a reality TV show about families without health insurance, as well as weaving Obamacare story lines into prime time shows and Spanish language TV. "I'd like to see 10 of the major TV shows, or telenovelas, have people talking about 'that health insurance thing,'" Peter V. Lee, the executive director of California's exchange, told the Times.
Two years later, the White House was still working on getting Hollywood to promote "that health insurance thing." In March, White House aide Valerie Jarrett told Popsugar.com, "I'm meeting with writers of various TV shows and movies to try to get [Obamacare] into the scripts." The 2012 California-based effort at getting Obamacare cameos on your favorite shows was scotched in favor of more traditional outreach, but the next time you hear the word Obamacare on the small or big screen, you're probably right to wonder whether it's the ideological equivalent of product placement.