Informing or advertising?Perhaps, amid agonizing over the NCAA tournament that has ruined almost every bracket, you have seen a television spot with LeBron James, or Magic Johnson or even Duke’s own Shane Battier, endorsing the Affordable Care Act. Recently, the White House has made a concerted push to increase the paltry number of enrollees in the government-backed health care plan.
By basic measures, the timely, March Madness-themed advertising campaign has succeeded in grabbing the attention of the young Americans whose enrollment is desperately needed to render the law a success. Indeed, multimedia marketing, coupled with affirmations from healthy athletic personas, is a proven marketing strategy. Watch any mainstream television channel during a commercial break and find yourself immersed in a montage of compelling, glamorous and edgy product promotions, often starring familiar public faces. It is no secret that millenials respond very well to multimedia advertising.
But one must ask the question: should the U.S. government be employing the same techniques to convince Americans to enroll in the new health care program as advertisers? Despite the divisive process by which the bill was passed through Congress and then upheld, again controversially, by the nation’s high court, the law is valid, and the White House has a compelling interest to see to its implementation. Advertising works and, after all, is already used in numerous aspects of the political process.
Still, questions about the nature of the ACA advertisements—their tone, intentions and informativeness—remain. Advertising is a legitimate means of seeking the attention of potential consumers and informing them about the benefits of a product. But, for private companies, the ultimate goal of marketing is sales. Government-funded ad campaigns, on the other hand, should prioritize distributing accurate and transparent information. Mixing marketing tactics with public announcements teeters on the line between the benign dissemination of information and persuasive propaganda.
That is not to say that the ACA ads are sketchy. By and large, they seem to be encouragingly informative. They remind young Americans that an active life poses a constant risk of injury, which can be quite costly without health insurance, and that the government will provide health insurance to those who register in the next five days. To this end, the ads are helpful public information announcements.
They are not, however, without drawbacks. The advertisements offer an oversimplified depiction of health care, the ACA and the political process by which the ACA was ratified. One cannot expect the ads to cover the minutest details of the bill, but enrolling in health insurance may not be advantageous for every healthy young American; in fact, for some, it is certainly not in their best interests to register. The stature of the U.S. government enables it to capture viewers in ways that messages from everyday private companies cannot. Accordingly, the government has an obligation to construct its advertisements with deliberate precision toward a publicly legitimate goal. It seems to have done so here, but by an unclear margin.
As viewers, it can be difficult to extract political motive from any government message. The White House worked intently to pass this legislation, and it wants to witness its success. Public information announcements should suffice, leaving the bill to flourish on its own merits.