As the healthcare reform debate heats up in Congress, so has the television advertising battle over the issue.
While many reform advocates had hoped that issue would be explained to the American public in a more substantive fashion, television advertising has emerged as an irresistible communications strategy.
The Health Insurance Association of America was the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of using ads to sway public opinion on healthcare reform. The group's $14 million "Harry and Louise" campaign, which featured a middle-class couple fretting over the Clinton health plan-particularly the impact of health alliances and spending limits-is widely viewed as being a key factor in the erosion in public support for the president's plan.
Now that the HIAA has discontinued its campaign, however, several health-related groups and coalitions are following its lead, pressing their message over the airwaves.
An acerbic spoof created by Clinton friend and television producer Harry Thomason, which aired on a one-time basis last month, killed off one of HIAA's fictional health reform killjoys, Louise. She died, the ad said, when husband Harry lost his job and his insurance plan along with it. Louise, whose struggling small business couldn't afford insurance, waited until it was too late to seek medical care for an undefined illness.
"If you see Harry, tell him to hang in there," the ad said. "The president's plan is just around the corner."
Using a more serious approach, the Health Care Reform Project, a coalition of labor, consumer and provider organizations, timed a new leg of its ad campaign with the congressional Easter recess. The pro-Clinton HCRP, which has said it's prepared to spend as much as $5 million on television ads, last week started airing four new spots in 15 cities nationwide.
One ad stresses that many features of the president's plan are supported by voters and suggests that the $14 million HIAA campaign gave the public a misleading view of the plan. Another ad features health insurance lobbyists shelling out $14 million to kill health reform.
Another effort by the Campaign for Health Security, a coalition of 30 labor and consumer organizations, has targeted five members of Congress with a $150,000 ad campaign urging viewers to demand that lawmakers guarantee all Americans the same comprehensive health plan that taxpayers provide for them. Many of the group's members support a single-payer approach to health reform, but they're endorsing the Clinton plan because they believe it meets their goal of universal coverage.
Gail Dratch, executive director of CHS, said most of the funds were spent on a statewide campaign in Tennessee, singling out Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who's the lead sponsor of a managed competition bill touted as an alternative to Mr. Clinton's managed competition proposal.
Mr. Cooper "supports a bill that gives you less coverage than he has," the ad says. "Call today. Tell him you've provided him with good coverage. Now you want coverage that's as good as his. Not less."
The same ad, targeting different members, is airing in the home districts of four Republicans representatives who Ms. Dratch said were supporting inadequate reform bills.
CHS also is launching a grass-roots campaign, during which it will send more than 1 million direct-mail pieces to citizens in key congressional districts and establish dozens of meetings on reform in more than 100 districts.
The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, meanwhile, has spent $260,000 on a four-city ad campaign that's airing in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. The ads feature real workers expressing fears about losing health coverage or their experience of having already lost it.
"The healthcare debate is a survival issue" for ILGWU members, said Susan Cowell, union vice president. However, she acknowledged that the nation could pay a "heavy price" for having such a crucial issue "debated in 30-second tidbits."