Tim Ryan of Weber subsidiary Sawyer Miller Advertising has a somewhat unusual history. In the late 1990s, he moved from commercial PR work to found Citizens for a Better Medicare, a 527 corporation dedicated to opposing Bill Clinton’s proposed Medicare changes (in particular, the Clinton version of a Medicare drug benefit). Ryan was responsible for the infamous “Flo” TV ads, in which an aging, arthritic Medicare patient lambasted the Clinton proposals. (For a walk down memory lane – if you have RealPlayer on your computer – see clips of the old commercials hereand here.) Political opponents lambasted Ryan in their turn for being funded mostly by the big pharmaceutical companies, whom he had worked for prior to starting CBM.
None of this sordid business shows up in Mr. Ryan’s Sawyer Miller bio today. It does highlight the ability of PR professionals to hawk anything, regardless of any inconsistency in the subject matter. A fellow blogger of the more left-ish persuasion pointed out another instance of, er, PR adaptability, in the HHS contract awarded to Porter Novelli – afterrevelations about a Porter Novelli honcho setting up Tea Party groups to oppose Obamacare. The ties of Kiki McLean and the other Democratically connected individuals at Porter Novelli are apparently strong enough to trump that little indiscretion.
We all know, I hope, that PR firms are just companies run by people, like all other companies. We aren’t naïve enough to expect angelic consistency or honesty from them – or from the government. It’s not surprise,at seeing their very human behavior up close and personal, that prompts a disgust with the whole PR-for-Obamacare business. It’s the lack of surprise. Anyone with experience of humanity knows that this is what happens when government has so much to regulate, is so into everyone’s business, and has so many ways to spend money.
Industries fall all over themselves to get on the gravy train. They come up, like Ogilvy, with whole lexicons of elaborate euphemisms to justify making money off of mandates that will gouge, limit, and dispirit the people. Indeed, it becomes their very purpose to justify the continuation of these circumstances. Next to the Obamacare-oriented PR industry, the defense industry looks simple and quaint. It actually puts out products, after all. You can tell the difference between having its products, and not having them. It’s obvious why you would want them, moreover – tanks, aircraft carriers, bombers – and what you would lack if you didn’t have them.
The seeds of falsehood
This cannot be said of PR for Obamacare. The people have not demanded anything that would make it necessary. It’s a bill of goods being sold to us – at great expense – and it’s being given the hard-sell, to boot. That it is being sold with lies has been documented before; one of the most recent is the lie put out by a northwestern-states PR firm, Strategies 360. In October,Patient Power Now called out Strategies 360 for claiming – falsely – that Obamacare for the first time prevents insurers from dropping clients who develop expensive health problems. It has been illegal to do that since 1997. Obamacare is not “saving” Americans from this practice, which is not only illegal but has already been prosecuted in federal court.
We can expect more falsehoods and misrepresentations as Obamacare is implemented. It will have negative effects for a lot of people, whether in terms of keeping their jobs, keeping their insurance, or having the optionsfor consultation and treatment that they have had up to now.
The US Congress is concerned about the taxpayer-funded PR blitz for Obamacare, and will no doubt remain concerned as more instances of misrepresentation are revealed over time. But unless Congress can come up with a way to stop it, Obamacare will steamroll the character and integrity of the American people and permanently corrupt the relationship between us and our government.
Targeting our emotions
This is partly because we will be at the government’s mercy for our health care. But it’s also because the government will be hiring people to advertise to us on the basis outlined by Ogilvy & Mather. Instead of the old “4 Ps” of advertising – product, place, price, and promotion – Ogilvy now relies on the “4 Es”: Experience, Everyplace, Exchange, and Evangelism. As senior executive Brian Fetherstonehaugh puts it:
Marketing in a fragmented, multichannel world needs a powerful heart. The key ingredients are emotion and passion.
Weber Shandwick, hired by Maryland to scope out a PR and advertising campaign for the state’s health-insurance exchange, offered this as one of its key campaign objectives (p. 7; emphasis added):
Establish a strong brand identity to help drive emotional connection with the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange…
It’s one thing when advertisers seek to drive emotional connections with lite beer, pick-up trucks, and air fresheners. It’s something else when the government hires advertisers to drive emotional connections with government policies and institutions. This goes far beyond the old-fashioned “good government” idea of providing information to citizens. In its essence, it differs not at all from a Stalin-era poster hyping the Soviet government’s policies to a beleaguered Russian people.
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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