Selling Obamacare

The weird, misleading propaganda behind the federal health care law

(Page 2 of 3)

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

so health careReason

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.

ConsultantCare

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."

Product Placement

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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Curious. Do you think Obama and the Democrats thought there would be this much of a backlash?

  • Faceless Commenter||

    Absolutely not. They thought ObamaCare would live up to that idiotic tech demo that Obama did. Those of us incessantly telling the government to STOP HELPING ME would be bathed in the benefits of ObamaCare and see the light.

    (Now that this article has been linked by RealClearPolitics, you might get some more answers.)

  • Faceless Commenter||

    Absolutely not. They thought ObamaCare would live up to that pathetic tech demo Obama did (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCQSGnZ0lTg). Those of us incessantly telling the government to STOP HELPING ME would be bathed in the benefits of ObamaCare and see the light.

    (Now that this article has been linked by RealClearPolitics, you might get some more answers.)

  • Faceless Commenter||

    See what I mean? Some of us are even posting our answers twice.

  • Suzyqpie||

    0bamaCare was a debris field from the start. My opinion, (1) I think the Democrats expected the whole mess to be struck down by SC. Then they would have had a great campaign sound bite without having to do anything, (2) share value has doubled for CI, WPL, HUM, UNH, & AET so WS is happy to heII with the rest of the mess. Campaign cash will flow from the Donor Class (3) Hubris kills the democrats, if they LOVE IT, whatever IT is will be loved by the hoi polloi. Bottom line, software with the toxicity of 0bamaCare will never work to the optimum.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Count me in on the skeptics. I think the Dems expected Obamacare "would be welcomed as liberators".

  • ||

    Oh.

    Still by far the most punchable face on the Internet.

  • Suicidy||

    Yeah, few faces scream 'smug faggot progressive' like that one.

  • Mumu Bobby||

    You're stereotyping onesie wearers. We're human too.

  • Sevo||

    "Still by far the most punchable face on the Internet."

    I just now noticed; it looks like his brows are painted into that supercilious arch.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    My initial instantaneous reaction was to wonder why Leonard from The Big Bang Theory was doing Obamacare ads.

  • Sevo||

    ..."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."...

    Strong-arming those you regulate! Great idea!

  • DarrenM||

    What's the point in having power to destroy businesses if you can't use it to force pursuade them to do what you want?

  • Sevo||

    ..."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."...

    Strong-arming those you regulate! Great idea!

  • Sevo||

    ..."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."...

    Strong-arming those you regulate! Great idea!
    (make that $400 off this year's contribution)

  • Sevo||

    ..."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."...

    Strong-arming those you regulate! Great idea!
    (make that $400 off this year's contribution)

  • OneOut||

    Is that now $800 total ?

  • Sevo||

    $400 is the running total of the discount; the contribution is getting mighty thin.

  • Sevo||

    A code too far, guys.

  • tonguesandelbows||

    "What we want to do here is, like, nag," she said. "We're really good at nagging. I'm a mom so I know. I'm a really good nag. And I can come at the same issue like 20 different ways until my daughter goes, 'OK, I'm cool, I'll just do it."

    After all, who doesn't appreciate being nagged?

  • GregMax||

    Kids and husbands . . .

  • ||

    Randy Marsh?

  • Almanian!||

    +1 n-word

  • Harun||

    Remember when Lefties would argue that Big Pharma spends too much money on advertising and marketing?

    Looks like they changed their mind when its advertising and marketing their schemes.

    Seriously, why not just jack up the penalty at the beginning? Oh no, then the frog might notice its getting boiled!

  • Mumu Bobby||

    Yeah but they were selling something people wanted. You've got to spend big bucks to sell a turd sandwich.

  • Xeones||

    The Hollywood gambit backfired in at least one instance. Modern Family was singled out as one of the popular shows that the administration wanted pushing the ACA, and shortly after all that came out, there was an episode where 12-year-old Luke was hospitalized for a food allergy. His 3-year-old cousin asked, "Who's paying for this?" and Luke responded, "Thanks to President Obama, you are."

  • DC_36||

    I saw that scene on MF, was was blown away (in a good way) that it happened.

  • Mumu Bobby||

    I think you missed the point. It wasn't anti-Obamacare, it was mocking the right that says 'everything is Obama's fault'. The fact that it was actually an 'own goal', i.e. your explanation makes more sense than what they intended, is beside the point. I love it when propaganda backfires - I bet most missed the intent and took your meaning.

  • Pulseguy||

    I"m not so sure about that. A lot of Hollywood types make a lot of money. I bet most vote Republican, in the anonymous voters box.

  • Irish||

    You can't seriously believe this. Rich people actually tend to vote Democrat. Obama won 8 of the 10 richest counties in America.

    The Democrats are the party of very wealthy and politically connected insiders along with tons of poor people. They basically realized they could ignore or actively destroy the middle class provided they gave free shit to the poor and stroked the egos of the rich.

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    Doesn't matter. Not at all. People HATED Social Security when it was first implemented. It was strong-armed into place by a wave of populist progressives who were swept into office on a completely unrelated surge of popularity, and they used their majorities to pass SS. Same thing with ACA. People will whine and cry and stamp their feed (like we all are doing), but at the end of the day, it's all for nothing. Sentiment will start to soften to the ACA over the next 5 years, and soon it will be part of the "I've paid into the system" brigade, and all will be lost.

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    feet*

  • Bean Counter||

    Sad, but probably true.

  • Calvin Coolidge||

    Except that the "paid into the system" brigade has a point with Social Security. They've extorted money from every paycheck I've ever received (up until the last few years when I finally started getting November and December FICA vacations), and if I live long enough I will insist that as much of that stolen property be returned as possible.

    ACA is pay-as-you-go, and even if the olds are subsidized by the youngs there is still not as much of a sense that "finally, I can get some of that money back".

  • Pulseguy||

    Yeah, especially because the "finally, I can get some of that back" actually comes when you're dying.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Except that the "paid into the system" brigade has a point with Social Security.

    Of course they do not. Just because the government took a percentage of people's taxes and said "we promise this is going to go into a retirement plan" as they spent every penny, a rational person can not claim that anything but taxes were paid.

    Social Security is the largest wealth transfer in human history. The recipients should go down in history as some of it's greatest villains.

  • JWatts||

    "People HATED Social Security when it was first implemented."

    No, that's not how it happened.

    "Public opinion about Social Security has been favorable throughout the history of the program. ... Income maintenance for the aged received overwhelming support, which increased steadily from 68 percent of the population in 1936 to a nearly unanimous 96 percent in 1944."

    http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs.....2n12p2.pdf

  • plusafdotcom||

    and by the '60s and '70s and '80s a lot of people began to wake up to reality, too.

    Fatal flaw in initial concept and implementation: No indexing for inflation AND LIFE EXPECTANCY.

  • JWatts||

    Yes, but still Social Security was and is a much better program than Obamacare. It's small s socialism, but it was at least crafted somewhat competently.

  • Marshall Gill||

    it was at least crafted somewhat competently.

    WTF? Gagillions of dollars up side down and it was crafted somewhat competently?

  • Harun||

    It can be fixed by increasing retirement, slightly lowering payout, means testing, etc. Its not that bad off.

    Medicare, Medicaid, and SSI are where a lot of trouble is.

  • Suicidy||

    Except by Ezekiel 'Joseph Mengele' Emmanuel's own design, when you get old you you don't get much back. As your value to the state has greatly declined. SS pays it's benefits to the seniors and keeps them in it's thrall that way.

    Obamacare doesn't.

  • Super Genius||

    "We're really good at nagging. I'm a mom so I know. I'm a really good nag."

    -her power over Obama explained.

  • mulp||

    So, Millennials are going to kill themselves when they turn 30? Or is it 40, so they will never be old and sick and thus suffer poverty and be a burden on the state drawing welfare?

    Given lots of Millennials are already poor because conservatives believe everything should be free, or at least cheap, from roads and bridges to food and clothing, so that means workers need to work for free or real cheap, except the conservatives demand to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits on a drug treatment for a disease or for doing a surgery. But after all, a doctor earning $250,000 as a surgeon can not possibly pay $5 more per meal so the workers providing that food can earn $30,000 per year. Why if he had to pay an extra $2000 a year for food out of his $250,000 income, he would be totally broke.

    Nope, if a Millennial choses to get leukemia but can't pay $250,000 to be treated, he deserves to die because the $250,000 doctor is a conservative and deserves to have a $250,000 minimum wage, but any fast food worker is a lazy liberal who deserves to die because no way do they deserve more than $2.12 an hour in wages.

  • Calvin Coolidge||

    Tell you what. Next time you are sick, go see the burger flipper and let them treat you. They will probably charge you a lot less, since they don't have a decade's worth of student loans to pay off.

  • Sevo||

    mulp|7.2.14 @ 4:01PM|#
    "So, Millennials are going to kill themselves when they turn 30?..."

    ^
    Stupidity?
    Sarc?

  • uunderstand||

    Incoherent 101, right? Top of the class?

  • Ann N||

    mulp you're putting the cart before the horse.

    when you want labor to help you do something (like build a road), you hire them by consentual agreement. this then DETERMINES how much the road will cost.

    what you are doing is like richard nixon, DETERMINING the cost of the road by choice, and then forcing ppl to work under that schema.

    choice/consent, and logistical consequence need to be applied to the right artifacts. ppl are agents, roads are uncaring inanimates. 'greedy' corporatists can want roads to cost less all they want, but it won't change the cost of labor (atleast in a free market).

    I want you to wash my car for free. Does my want somehow determine your independent behavior? I doubt it.

  • Ann N||

    ppl don't deserve cancer treatment. ppl don't deserve to escape 'natural causes'.

    we are each obsolete organisms on borrowed time.

    when a 'treatment' costs over a decade of gross income it puts a serious burden upon your fellows to compel them to provide it.

    at what cost point do you think its immoral to drain your fellow taxpayers? we could devote 90% of our GDP on healthcare, and THERE WOULD STILL BE DEATHS DUE TO HEALTHCARE RATIONING. healthcare is a scarce technology. blind overindulgence costs others economic liberty. its simply immoral to extract economic well-being from your neighbor for extravagant treatments. i would argue its immoral to extract anything by force, but a decade of earnings is just over the top.

  • The Last American Hero||

    The free market doesn't ration, only governments ration. Take a look at the gas station - are there 1970's era gas lines today? No because you don't have rationing. Those lines are what happens when the government dictates the price when they can't possibly know the cost.

    Apparently Ann knows the actual cost of developing and administering space age cutting edge cancer treatments as well. Maybe you could get a job on one of those health advisory panels.

    By the way, the Lightworker killed off catastrophic insurance policies, which would have taken care of the exact thing your worried about.

    Ann must want people to die while waiting to see a doctor. Or perhaps die because that next big medical breakthrough won't happen due to O'Care.

    On the other hand, since the feds did such a good job taking care of our vets, maybe they should take care of the rest of us.

  • Sevo||

    The Last American Hero|7.2.14 @ 7:10PM|#
    "The free market doesn't ration, only governments ration."

    Disagreed.
    All goods are rationed by one mechanism or the other; all goods are scarce. Markets ration them via price signals; are you willing to pay X for that good? If not, you are rationed-out.
    And I think you're mis-reading Ann's posts; I'd suggest you give them another look.

  • Secondgenamerican||

    Failed Econ 99, didn't you?

  • Sevo||

    No, I didn't.
    Do you live in a world where goods are not scarce?

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Logan's Run

  • ||

    When that movie came out it was inconceivable to me that any sane person would want to operate a society like that, and thus no one would seriously consider it.

    What can I say? I was young and naive.

  • mkreitler||

    Ann N has pointed out where your thinking breaks down in terms of economics, but setting those aside:

    $5 per meal * 3 meals per day * 365 days per year = $5475, not $2000.

    This doesn't affect your argument, much, but if you want people to take you seriously, you need to show that you're a) smart enough to do basic math, and b) care enough to do the calculations, if you're going to talk about numbers.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Do you tip the person behind the counter $5 when you get a burger? Why not? Stop being so greedy!

  • Suicidy||

    Keep in mind that progressives view the first act of 'Logan's Run' as an instructional tale. Carousel is coming.

    Also, are you really begrudging physician's their wages? And surgeons in particular? Given the intellect and talent it takes to even be capable of BEING a surgeon, let alone the time and expense invested to actually do it.

  • Sevo||

    "Given the intellect and talent it takes to even be capable of BEING a surgeon, let alone the time and expense invested to actually do it."

    What? Are you and "abilist"? Rewarding people for their efforts to be able to provide a service?
    How..............
    gauche.

  • Brian D||

    So mulp wants ditch diggers to be paid $50/hr and doctors to be paid $50/hr too. EEKWALITEE!

    Why spend years in medical school, amassing thousands of dollars in student loan debt, struggling to become a doctor when I can go dig ditches for the same wage and have no loans to pay off and probably get a ton of healthy exercise at the same time?

  • Irish||

    Given lots of Millennials are already poor because conservatives believe everything should be free, or at least cheap, from roads and bridges to food and clothing, so that means workers need to work for free or real cheap,

    I don't even know what you mean. Since when have conservatives argued food should be free? Aren't leftists the ones who just threw a hissy fit because the Supreme Court said they can't force employers to give them something for free?

    except the conservatives demand to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits on a drug treatment for a disease or for doing a surgery.

    Yes, every conservative makes six figure salaries. Every. One.

    Nope, if a Millennial choses to get leukemia but can't pay $250,000 to be treated, he deserves to die because the $250,000 doctor is a conservative and deserves to have a $250,000 minimum wage, but any fast food worker is a lazy liberal who deserves to die because no way do they deserve more than $2.12 an hour in wages.

    Which was never happening. America's 5 year cancer survival rate was much higher than Europe's prior to Obamacare.

    The five year survival rate for breast cancer is 97 percent in America, 93% in Europe and 78% in Britain.

    Our healthcare system saved lives and you demolished it. You killed people, scum bag.

  • Doghouse Reilly||

    Logan's Run!

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    mulp deserves to die..in fact mulp WILL DIE.

  • JWatts||

    And clearly he'll Die because of conservative greed. If it wasn't for conservatives, people would live forever and never get sick, don't you know.

    /sarcasm

  • DarrenM||

    "Disturbing" is an understatement.

  • dcstewart23@gmail.com||

    Very interesting article and well written.

    As a health care professional with a background in public health, I've long studied this law. While I am for affordable health insurance, especially for the previously uninsurable, I think how this law was created and its implementation have been very, very disappointing.

    I'm not at all optimistic about the ACAs future, either.

    Thanks for writing this!

  • ||

    "I'm a really good nag." - Valerie Jarrett

    Nobody likes naggers, Valerie...

  • Frozen Costume||

    Why should premiums be based on income ?

  • Number 2||

    "On many occasions it has seemed that selling the law, rather than getting it to work, is the main political priority. "

    Sadly, this also happens to be the theme of the entire Obama Presidency: selling it, rather than getting it to work.

  • Number 2||

    "Ultimately, the problem with using tax dollars for Obama­care propaganda is that we don't know what we don't know. "

    Unknown unknowns!

  • SIV||

    Post and comment reruns on a weekday?

  • ||

    I've emailed the webmaster on the assumption this was a mistake, but perhaps this is just Gaia-friendly recycling

  • Ted S.||

    I was wondering how an article got 60 comments in 40 minutes.

    This will be the new future when the US goes to everybody taking a month off in the summer like in Europe, although for us it will be enforced unpaid vacations in the dumb theory that spreading out labor amongst more people will bring prosperity.

  • sarcasmic||

    A ditch dug by fifty manual laborers is much more valuable than a ditch dug by one guy with a backhoe, because it required more labor to produce! Duh!

  • Rich||

    The amount of taxpayer money involved in selling Obamacare is unprecedented.

    "Let me be clear. The amount, uh, is not only unprecedented; it is indeed, uh, historic."

    Seriously, where does this crap end? How about giving Democratcare its own cable network, or getting NSA and IRS to make sure everyone logs onto healthcare.gov at least once a week?

  • Almanian!||

    unprecedented

    There's that word again, in association with The President™.

    Where you been, "unprecedented"?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Huh. You'd think something this awesome, for which so many people clamored enthusiastically, would sell itself.

  • Swiss Servator, Alles Klar||

    WRECKER! KULAK! SPLITTER!

  • Rich||

    But we have to advertise the law so that you can find out what is in it away from the fog of controversy.

  • ||

    We're really good at nagging.

    How has this not been posted yet?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement