Why The Health Care Debate Is Sick

Danny G. and I joined Bill Green of Make The Logo Bigger on Bob Knorpp’s BeanCast tonight. One of the hot topics we tossed around is Obama’s apparent failure to sell Americans on his health care plan.
It’s also a topic Ken Wheaton of Ad Age took on last week.

…tackling health-care reform in the U.S. demands something approaching perfection when it comes to messaging and branding.
Team Obama didn’t come close. It never clearly defined the message; it let surrogates control the debate; it clumsily used the wrong tactics at the wrong times. Worst of all, it didn’t respect the consumer.
Quick: What is Obamacare? “A derogatory term coined by the right” may be the correct answer, but it misses the bigger point. Even at this stage, there is no one cohesive bill. Echoing those campaign promises of “Hope” and “Change,” Team Obama seemed to believe it could simply sell “Reform.”
“Reform” is a pretty vague promise — a tagline without a product.

I’d like to add that “Reform” is also not aspirational, nor hopeful like “Change”. In the meantime, the opposition has their messaging perfected. The Republicans know how to keep it simple and stay on message. In this case keeping it simple means Obama’s plan is socialism. In politics, it matters not that the argument is false, only that it’s believable.
For important issues like this I’d love to see the White House hire the nation’s best persuaders–The Martin Agency, Arnold, Goodby, etc.–to bring some shape to the story. Political advertising is really a sorry excuse for advertising, mainly because it’s handled by partisan politicians who are WAY TOO CLOSE to the issue to be effective marketers.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Well, I have to say that reform of such a major institution or collection of institutions, really, is a nice fat target. As you know from being an advertising creative, it’s much easier to kill an idea than it is to sell it.
    But I will agree that nothing cohesive really came out of the administration on this topic.

  2. I agree that the message—not to mention the bill itself, or, more accurately, the three current committee bills—is far from clear, which both the bills and the message need to be if the public is to accept them.
    Also, Todd is right, it is easier to find fault than to explain advantages.
    However, although I know that this may not be popular here, I certainly don’t want to see the administration spend tax dollars on advertising political policies. We have enough—maybe too much—campaigning in politics now, not just during elections, but, according to Scott McClellan’s What Happened. . . , throughout the term in office.
    What we REALLY need (I know, I’m an idealist!) are statesmen, not career politicians, who craft good legislation; are concerned with the welfare of the citizens who elect them, not special interests who finance their campaigns; and have an understanding of the issues that allow them to give a capsule “elevator speech” explaining the basic reasons that the legislation is needed/what it will accomplish.
    I know, I’m asking for a lot! But “I can dream, can’t I?”

  3. @Sally G
    I’m sure there top notch are agencies willing to take on important White House initiatives as pro-bono work, given how high profile the account is and how compelling the particular subject matter is.
    Money or no money on the table, the fact is Dems need to wake up and realize they’ve been out-messaged for decades. It’s time to learn from Frank Luntz and his cronies.
    You take a simple proposition that can be spread virally and hammer away at it. In this case, the message could be “YOU WILL NEVER GO BANKRUPT BECAUSE YOU, OR A LOVED ONE, FALLS SICK.” That’s a lot more powerful than “Reform,” even though reform would usher that change in.