Those wonderful folks who brought you that totally dysfunctional, $394 million Healthcare.gov website that Jon Stewart calls "the spinning beach ball of health care" are at it again – with a pair of 30-second Obamacare television commercials released October 21. Only you're not the target audience.
Judging from their strategy, their internal logic and their divorce from objective reality, they seem to be targeted not for the American citizens, but for those of Htrae, the planet also known as Bizarro World.
You say you don't remember Bizarro World? Well, if you're too young to have read about it in Superman Comics as a kid, let Wikipedia lend a helping hand:
In the Bizarro world of "Htrae" ("Earth" spelled backwards), society is ruled by the Bizarro Code which states "Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!" In one episode, for example, a salesman is doing a brisk trade selling Bizarro bonds: "Guaranteed to lose money for you." Later, the mayor appoints Bizarro No. 1 to investigate a crime, "Because you are stupider than the entire Bizarro police force put together." This is intended and taken as a great compliment.
The commercials' objective – to get more people to go to the Healthcare.gov website to open accounts and shop for insurance policies – is strategically bizarre on two levels.
First, if the whole problem with the sign-up process is, according to Kathleen Sibelius's post-October 1 excuses, the result of the "good problem" of too overwhelmingly much traffic, why blow millions of taxpayers' dollars on advertising to attract still more of this overwhelmingly disabling traffic?
Second, it ignores a basic advertising principle, first stated by Bill Bernbach during the ad industry's creative revolution of the 1960s, namely, "Nothing destroys a bad product faster than great advertising." These commercials are so-so, not great, advertising at best, but to the extent that they're effective they'll produce the same result: The more people respond to the ad, the sooner they'll try the product, find out it stinks, swear off ever trying it again, and tell their friends to shun it like the plague.
And no less objective an authority than Consumer Reports declares Healthcare.gov a bad product. "Stay away from Healthcare.gov," they write, "for at least another month if you can. Hopefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess..."
The commercials have succeeded where everyone from journalists to government officials to insurance companies has failed – in finding two people who have actually been able to buy Obamacare insurance.
For example, the entire state of New York hasn't found any at all, as the New York Daily News reported October 21: "In New York, one of only 16 states that has its own exchange, not one person had succeeded in using the site to enroll in a plan as of Friday."
New York's goal was 218,000 new insureds by March, 2014, according to EnrollMaven.com
In the District of Columbia, says the Washington Business Journal,
Through Monday, 164 individuals or families have finished signing up and requested an invoice, according to new data released by the exchange. That's up from 89 two weeks ago.
D.C.'s pace appears to be lagging behind a target set by the Obama administration, according to the Associated Press. An internal document put the October target for D.C. at 3,010 enrollees in commercial insurance plans, not counting Medicaid.
"That’s 75 in two weeks time, or a bit more than five signups per day," writes National Review's Jim Geraghty, crunching the numbers. "According to EnrollMaven.com, the administration’s aim was to get 43,000 successful signups by March 31."
So finding two people to do television spots saying they'd actually bought Obamacare policies was an accomplishment equal in difficulty to rounding up the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman.
Defining success down
"[I]t's clear the administration was stretching to present people who, beyond supporting Obamacare, have actually gained from it in any tangible way," writes Byron York at the Washington Examiner. Quoting verbatim from the White House-issued descriptions of the 13 "success story" people forming a human backdrop to the president's October 21 Rose Garden pep rally, he notes
For example, a Pennsylvania man named Malik Hassan was in the group, and this is the White House description of his situation, in full: "Malik Hassan works at a restaurant in Philadelphia. Hassan, who does not receive coverage through his employer, is looking forward to enrolling for health coverage this fall. He recently used Healthcare.gov. to process his application and is waiting for the options for potential plans in Philadelphia."
So, Hassan is employed, not covered, and has not yet succeeded in finding coverage through Obamacare. That is, in the White House's estimation, an Obamacare success story.
Then there is Nathaniel Hojnacki, who recently finished his schooling. Here is the White House description of his situation, again in full: "Nathaniel Hojnacki recently received his Master's degree at Johns Hopkins University SAIS and is in an employment situation without benefits. Hojnacki recognizes the importance of coverage and is planning to enroll after he explores his coverage options on the DC exchange."
So, Hojnacki has a job, does not have coverage, and is planning to explore finding coverage through Obamacare. Another success story.
Then there is LaJuanna Russell, of Virginia. Here is the White House description of her situation, in its entirety: "LaJuanna Russell is the owner of Business Management Associates, a consulting company in Alexandria, Virginia. Russell says she is proud to offer her employees health insurance but that it can be difficult for a small business. Russell believes that the ACA provides stability for her and her employees and is exploring what new coverage options will be available to her company under the exchanges."
So, Russell owns a business, has employees, and believes Obamacare might help her in the future. Another success story.
Then there is another small business owner, Zohre Abolfazli of Tennessee. Here is the White House description of her situation, in its entirety: "Zohre Abolfazli has owned a small business outside of Nashville, Tennessee for almost twenty-five years. Even though she has been able to maintain her health insurance over the years, it has been a challenge to find affordable, comprehensive health insurance in the individual market place. Last night, Abolfazli was able to register through HealthCare.gov and now plans to comparison shop for the best plan that meets her budget and needs."
So, Abolfazli has managed to get onto the Obamacare website, register, and now plans to shop for coverage. Another success story.
And so on.
Divorced from reality
Unlike the other official "success stories," the two people who give on-camera testimonials really, truly did successfully buy health insurance.
But what else they say is, Bizarro-like, the opposite of reality.
Take Deborah Lielasus, a self-employed grant writer from Portsmouth, NH, who stars in the first commercial. "The site was very easy to use and the customer-service representatives were patient and helpful," she says on camera. But when she spoke to the Associated Press October 2, she told a different story.
"Deborah Lielasus was impressed by how easy it was to use the new online insurance market that launched Tuesday — until it stopped working," they report. And when she spoke with National Review Online, she admitted that "it actually took her three days to enroll." Maybe they were easy days.
She wasn't the only one having problems with the "easy to use" site. A semi-retired Iowa City computer programmer, no less, "one of the first Iowans — possibly the first — to successfully purchase insurance via the problem-plagued website Healthcare.gov....said Monday that he tried more than 100 times before finally being able to sign onto healthcare.gov, type in his personal information, compare insurance plans, and purchase a policy," the Des Moines Register noted.
And as far as those "patient and helpful" customer service reps are concerned, ABC news reported on
a man who has spent 4.5 hours on the Obamacare hotline -- and he still hasn't been able to sign up for Obamacare. Yesterday alone, that man spent 1.5 hours on the phone trying to sign up. But [he] continued to have no luck.
ABC says he's tried using the website -- for 5 hours -- and even live chatted with Obamacare representative[s] -- for something like 3 hours. But nothing seems to be working for the man.
Journalists report that when, having failed to make the Healthcare.gov work, they call those "patient and helpful" customer service folks, they get busy signals, endless waits, long series of prompts, and finally a human being who tells them to – wait for it – go online to Healthcare.gov.
Daniel McNaughton, the 22-year-old computer science student who stars in the second commercial, says on camera that "Once I was on the site, it was pretty easy for me to sign up." What he didn't say to the television audience, but told the Ft. Myers News-Press, was that it took him, with his computer science training, "a half day of effort" to do it.
He also somehow failed to disclose that as an intern for a Democratic state senator, webmaster of his local Democratic Party website, chairman of the Young Democrats of Lee County and delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, he's not exactly either a typical citizen or a neutral observer.
Where's the FTC when you need it?
Of course, if a private-enterprise advertiser ran commercials as misleading as these, you could expect the Federal Trade Commission to be on them like white on rice.
Too bad that both the FTC and the perpetrators of these spots report to the same chief executive.
Make your advertising more effective. Visit www.BrightOrangeAdv.com/results/