Obama's Dog of a Health Care Message

Having spent much of the past thirty years of my life in the advertising industry, the flaws of President Obama's health care message are apparent and massive. Most people outside the ad business will tell you that commercials try to beat you over the head to make you buy what you don't need or want.  In truth advertising that doesn't address the public's needs or wants does not work. On top of that, if a consumer keeps being exposed to a message that does not meet a need, they begin to tune it out quickly; it's called wear-out.  Finally if the message keeps changing, consumers get suspicious.

Sound Familiar? That's because almost since his inauguration the POTUS has been beating us over the head with a heath care message that does not address the needs or wants of the majority of American voters. His heath care effort is designed to make sure everyone has heath care, pre-existing conditions are covered and there is a public option to ensure greater competition to keep prices low.

Voters don't have a perceived need for the president's health care plan. Polls show that between 85-90% of voters are satisfied with their present health care coverage.  Covering everybody is a noble effort, but voters are feeling the effects of a deep recession and are worried about the federal deficit. Just like a commercial for a new Mercedes Benz, most see universal coverage as something nice to have, but maybe another time.

Covering pre-existing conditions is a "mom and apple pie issue" -- it grabs your attention, makes you feel all warm and cuddly, but most voters already have their pre-existing conditions covered so it isn't necessary.  You might enjoy a funny commercial for a new car, but unless you need a new car, you might not remember which auto maker made the commercial.

Budget considerations and rationing are all things that make people feel uncomfortable about the public option, but the real issue is that voters just don't understand why or how a government option will create competition and ultimately save money.  America is a still a center right country believing in free enterprise. The president has not explained to voters what a public option will do to satisfy their needs. Obama has also not laid out how the public option, his "New and Improved" health insurance will provide a tangible consumer benefit. They see a government who can't manage costs and budgets on existing heath care plans. The POTUS' message has not explained how his product is better than what people already have. 

You go into an ice cream store and you order a pint of your favorite flavor cookies and cream. If the kid behind the counter says you don't want that, you want mint chocolate chip, I guarantee that most customers will go home with cookies and cream.  But if that same kid says that the mint chocolate chip will tastes even better, will lower your cholesterol and will make your bald head sprout a full head of hair, you just might do that.  The president has not given a compelling reason why we need the mint chocolate chip.

Pundits have commented that almost every time Obama goes on TV, voter support for ObamaCare slips. In advertising that is called wear-out. Before it was purchased by Nestle, I worked on the Carnation Pet Food account. The agency I worked for developed a great commercial for Mighty Dog, a canned dog food product. The TV spot featured a great testimonial, a dog barking with subtitles. It was the kind of commercial that broke through the clutter of other ads to generate much attention. Within a few weeks of the commercial airing it stopped being effective. Because the commercial received so much attention, people began to tune it out very quickly. 

President Obama has over-used the bully pulpit of the presidency. Because every time the POTUS makes another speech, or has another press conference he receives a high level of attention. Just like the barking dog in the Mighty Dog commercial it is losing its effectiveness and people are tuning out.

Sometimes it seems that the POTUS changes his health care message more often than people change their underwear. It was heath care reform, it was insurance reform, then it was health care reform again and then it was insurance reform. The President has even changed the villains; first it was the Republicans, then it was talk radio, then Fox News and the CBO. There was one period where the President dropped all the villains and tried to convince rabbis, priests and ministers, to deliver sermons on ObamaCare because it is a moral thing to do. Originally the famous public option just had to be in the plan and now... well maybe it does and maybe it doesn't.

While it is sometimes necessary to refine or change product attributes and messages after the launch of an existing product, changing advertising messages for product during its introduction creates confusion and suspicion.  It should be done with great care.  It seems as if the POTUS' original message was not well thought out and they keep changing it on the fly. This is why there is so much confusion about ObamaCare, there has been so many messages.

When I worked on that same pet food account, we were about to introduce a new dry dog food called New Breed. This was going to be the big star of Carnation; New Breed, the Best Tasting Dog Food. The product was tested against all major competition and dogs preferred New Breed's taste. It had the biggest ad budget by far, of anything in the Carnation stable of products.

Shortly after it was introduced, our claim was challenged by a small regional dog food brand so we had to change the message to New Breed, the Best Tasting NATIONAL Dog Food. That lasted for about a week, when we got a challenge from a small but national canned dog food product. The commercial was changed to New Breed, the Best Tasting National Dog Food IN A BAG. One month later Purina launched its High Pro dry dog food which also tested better. Rather than change the message to New Breed, Dogs Think it Tastes Pretty Good -- Sometimes, a totally new campaign was developed and the product was off the market six months after that.

Consumer-centric advertising, crafting your message, addressing the needs and wants of the end user and doing it in a way that does not turn off consumers is important to make your message work.  In the end, it is the hubris of the POTUS, creating an ever-changing confusing message that does not address the needs of the voters along with over using the power of the presidency as a messenger combining to keep the public from truly listening to his pitch. 

Sammy Benoit is the Editor of the political blog, The Lid.