Southern Californians, I need your help here. I’ve been seeing a TV commercial (airing in the greater-LA viewing area for the last week), in which a middle-aged woman – not a senior; a tad zaftig; with dark salt-and-pepper hair – lauds Obamacare as the reason she is alive today. Her story involves having a preexisting condition, which prevented her from getting private insurance. From the standpoint of actual truth, of course, the condition would not have prevented her from having access to Medicaid (or to California’s medical assistance programs, if she lives here) – and what Medicaid does or doesn’t cover is the government’s fault, and could be changed (or exchanges for clients with preexisting conditions created) without implementing Obamacare.
At any rate, I don’t know if this transparent propaganda is airing elsewhere. I resolved to research this commercial, and, of course, having sat down to do so, I have been unable to locate any information about it on the web. I believe I recall seeing it on The Weather Channel, but have probably also seen it elsewhere; e.g., HGTV (I’m a hopeless House Hunters addict), the afternoon news on the local ABC affiliate (ABC-7), and possibly during a sappy Hallmark Channel movie. I don’t recall seeing it all during the Thanksgiving weekend football marathon. Its target audience is presumably women.
So, Californians, if you have seen this commercial, please let me know anything you have identified about it. My goal is to figure out who produced it. I’m sure we know who paid for it – the American taxpayer – but there’s so much crony-ish revolving-door-ism going on with advertising agencies and the Obama administration that it would really be nice to know who’s responsible for this ad.
Placing propaganda in entertainment
Many readers are no doubt aware of the millions in taxpayer dollars that the Obama administration has contracted out to PR firms for the purpose of hawking Obamacare to a reluctant public. Quite a few readers probably also know that California has contracted with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide to sell its state insurance exchange – and all the benefits of wholly-government-managed “health care” – to skeptical, resistant, or simply exhausted Californians. A key product of this enterprise is the notorious bright idea of getting Hollywood to include Obamacare themes in the story lines of popular TV series:
And Hollywood, an industry whose major players have been supportive of President Obama and his agenda, will be tapped. Plans are being discussed to pitch a reality television show about “the trials and tribulations of families living without medical coverage,” according to the Ogilvy plan. The exchange will also seek to have prime-time television shows, like “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and Univision telenovelas, weave the health care law into their plots.
“I’d like to see 10 of the major TV shows, or telenovelas, have people talking about ‘that health insurance thing,’ ” said Peter V. Lee, the [California insurance] exchange’s executive director. “There are good story lines here.”
A cozy industry hits the government jackpot
What fewer readers may be aware of is the multitude of connections between the PR firms, advocacy groups with a financial interest in Obamacare, and the Obama administration. For example, the advertising firm Porter Novelli, which was awarded the $20 million contract from HHS to urge Obamacare on American taxpayers, was founded by William D. Novelli, who was later the CEO of AARP – a major advocate of Obamacare – from 2001 to 2009. (Novelli’s successor at AARP, Barry Rand, was a big Obama donor in 2008.)
As numerous news outlets noted at the time the $20 million contract was awarded, Catherine “Kiki” McLean was a senior partner and managing director of Porter Novelli. McLean is a Democratic Party operative who worked for the campaigns of Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, as well as the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. McLean was hired by Porter Novelli in June 2009. Since 2010, Porter Novelli has been awarded $49 million in HHS contracts.
In October 2012, meanwhile, Susan Hayes, Porter Novelli’s “global head of healthcare” – their senior executive responsible for health care PR, brands, advertising, etc – left the firm to work for Obama for America, the president’s reelection campaign. This departure was reported 20 days before the 6 November election, although it is not clear exactly when Ms. Hayes left Porter Novelli. Apparently, she was able to log at least three weeks on the job.
Susan Hayes also worked in the past for Ogilvy & Mather, one of the family of Ogilvy PR firms, which are owned by WPP Group Plc, the world’s biggest PR conglomerate. Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide is the firm under contract to California’s health-insurance exchange. But Ogilvy PR is no slouch in the federal-contracts department either, having bagged contracts in 2009 with HHS, FEMA, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Federal stimulus money was used to contract Ogilvy for a $17.5-million campaign to create a “publicity center” for HHS “products,” one of several contracts amounting to over $33 million. Ogilvy’s close engagement with federal propaganda campaigns is the result of its embeddedness in Washington, DC; politicians and staffers from both parties cycle through its companies. But Ogilvy also benefits from the multifarious enterprises of its parent corporation, WPP, among which it may be easier to find firms that do not have Obama campaign/administration graduates, than to find those that do.
WPP bought outright, for example, the take-no-prisoners firm Blue State Digital, which coordinated online fundraising and social-networking campaigns for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Blue State Digital was founded in 2004 by former Howard Dean staffers; in October this year, Doug Powers (directorblue) tracked down Blue State Digital’s connection to the Obama fundraising website, at which it was infamously simple to fake one’s donor information.
Nick Judd at TechPresident described Blue State Digital’s contribution to the Obama campaign of 2012 in these terms:
[V]endors included Blue State Digital and NGP VAN … these companies were in essence extensions of the Democratic Party — NGP VAN thanks to a longstanding arrangement with the national committee and Blue State because its leadership is packed with veterans of the Howard Dean campaign and Obama’s 2008 election effort.
And veterans there were (and are). What few outside the industry were aware of this fall was that Blue State Digital was owned by WPP, which bought it for an undisclosed amount in December 2010. Key founders stayed with the company through the buy-out, but others – Mark Skidmore, Andrew Bleeker, and Michael Organ, all one-time Obama workers – left BSD to found another firm, Bully Pulpit Interactive. Bleeker left Bully Pulpit within weeks, however, signing on with another WPP property, PR firm Hill & Knowlton Strategies.
Hill & Knowlton Strategies was a likely place for Bleeker to go, with its CEO Jack Martin being a big Obama and Democratic donor. CampaignMoney.com shows that Martin gave $17,900 to the Obama Victory Fund 2012, and a total of $22,450 to other 2012 Democratic candidates. Martin gave tens of thousands to the 2010 race as well, supporting such candidates as Harry Reid, Debbie Stabenow, Mark Warner, and Byron Dorgan.
In 2011, WPP also bought the Glover Park Group, a fast-growing lobbying firm set up by former Clinton staffers and peopled today by former Obama staffers as well (see here also). The Glover Park Group became notorious earlier this year for having brokered access to Obama administration officials for the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty – a link-up that resulted in the disclosure of the name of a Navy SEAL from SEAL Team Six.
A brief resurgence of notoriety for the Glover Park Group centered this month on Paula Broadwell’s decision to hire the firm to deal with her own PR crisis. But the big flick on WPP’s acquisition of PR and lobbying firms has a more important moral to it. The ad industry naturally sees Obamacare as a huge windfall – and for good reason. The federal government is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Obamacare-related PR, and it can only want to spend more in the future. As Obamacare’s provisions set in, the old, accustomed patterns of health care delivery will change. People will need information – and because many of the changes will be unpleasant and even harmful, people will need encouragement, persuasion, urging – and, if necessary, simple deception.
Synergy in advertisers’, government’s view of “changing our behavior”
Along these lines, Liberty News Network sought to determine how Ogilvy would handle the PR promotion of “comparative effectiveness” data on medical procedures, one of the key tasks for its contract with HHS to set up the Obamacare “publicity center.” The writers looked through Ogilvy’s philosophy on marketing and PR, and highlighted this passage:
…We believe in behavior change for a better world and the power of businesses to foster movements to drive individual, societal and business benefits. Companies that facilitate such behavior change more deeply engage consumers by supporting them in actions like managing their healthcare, developing better nutrition habits, and protecting their homes and assets. …
OgilvyEngage is built on Ogilvy Public Relations’ nearly 30-year legacy of social marketing, a proven discipline that applies principles and techniques to prompt and support behaviors that benefit society as well as the individual. Our expertise has crafted award-winning public health and safety campaigns to get people to buckle up, get screened for colon cancer, purchase flood insurance and more…
According to Ogilvy:
While movements to educate or drive awareness about social issues are vital, affecting the components of personal behavior — our attitudes, our motivations, our abilities, and more — can push people toward actions that matter: the routine purchase of socially responsible goods and products or the use of or engagement with socially conscious services.
This is disgusting in a way the simple profit motive is not. The profit motive is honest and essentially respectful: it assumes, if it does not always emphasize, the dignity and self-direction of everyone involved. The concept of government hiring PR firms to “prompt and support behaviors that benefit society as well as the individual” is neither honest nor respectful. It assumes that there is some human entity that knows better than you, me, and most other people what each of us ought to be spending his hard-earned money on – and, in the case of health care, what the best outcome is for each of us, regardless of any individual factor.
It is extremely disrespectful to assume about the people that they need to be hectored – at their own expense – into behaving differently. In one sense, it’s what hellfire-and-damnation preachers do from the pulpit: pass the collection plate, and warn us of terrible consequences if we don’t change our behavior. But, of course, we aren’t compelled to give those preachers our business. Obamacare is nothing if not a daily demonstration that a few very foolish, transient voting majorities have effectively commissioned the US government to perform this quasi-religious role in our lives.
The result is that PR firms, laden with revolving-door political employees, are slavering to be paid – by us, through confiscation of our earnings – to make us believe among other things that whatever HHS says about “comparative effectiveness” is gospel truth. (The importance of comparative effectiveness arguments centers wholly on justifying the denial of procedures and treatments. Selling the public on the idea that it’s selfish or vainglorious to prefer treatment that gives you a better quality of life, over treatment – or non-treatment – that is cheaper and less trouble for a government-managed health care industry, is a marvelous challenge for a PR philosopher.)
Obamacare was always going to create tremendous “opportunities” for lobbying and PR. I don’t have to care what advertising firms do for their private clients. If I’m not interested in the product, I don’t have to pay a cent for what the ad agency does. If I do care, I can vote with my spending dollar. But Obamacare unleashes a government-mandated PR-and-lobbying avalanche that we can’t simply tune out. It forces all of us to pay not only to participate in the system, but to be lectured, enticed, misled, and lied to about it.
More firms, more connections: The avalanche grows
The ways in which this differs from the propaganda organs of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Communist world are less and less significant with each day that passes. Meanwhile, the avalanche is gaining momentum. In early October, yet another PR contract for Obamacare was announced: this one with the PR firm Weber Shandwick, a subsidiary of Interpublic Group, through which the usual herd of Obama campaign/administration graduates appears to cycle (one of many examples here). The CEO of Weber Shandwick, Jack Leslie, got his start in political lobbying as an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy; in 2009, President Obama appointed him chairman of the United States African Development Foundation, crowning Leslie’s years of board work for missions of the UN High Commission on Refugees.
In the incestuous world of government PR, Weber Shandwick’s point persons for the Obamacare contract come with the usual ties. Karen Oliver, a senior vice president at Weber subsidiary Powell Tate, who will lead the account work for the contract, moved to Weber from Porter Novelli in March of 2012. Her assignment: to work on the Medicare and Medicaid Services account. Oliver and her new boss, Pam Jenkins, worked together at Ogilvy in the past.
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 here and 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 – after revelations 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 options for 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 board member 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.
Given that we the people have no control today over whether Obamacare is marketed to our emotions, it is reasonable to wonder what kinds of advertising campaigns for other government policies will be launched at us. Can a divided Congress stop any of them?
Advertising: too dangerous in the hands of government
As the swineline post points out, Obama is not the first president to use PR firms to hype government policies (or urge citizens to do things like obtain flood insurance or buckle their seatbelts). The Washington Times reports that the federal government has spent more than $16 billion on commercially contracted PR since 2002, much of it through non-competitive bidding.
Most of the spending under George W. Bush was by the Pentagon, although a good portion of that was on foreign-relations-oriented PR overseas. How much of that kind of thing the Pentagon “should” be doing is part of a much larger, long-running argument about the division of labor between civilian diplomacy (State) and military diplomacy (Defense). But HHS came in a healthy second throughout the period 2002-2011.
Advertising is a dangerous thing in the hands of the armed state. I am no more in favor of Republican administrations spending a lot of money on it than of Democrats doing so. With Obamacare, we have reached the fork in the road. A government with the powers conferred by Obamacare cannot, on principle, be trusted to “advertise” its policies to us. The inevitable descent into untrustworthy propaganda has already begun. Until Obamacare is repealed, it will continue to get worse.
Her home blog is The Optimistic Conservative.