My first thought when confronted with President Barack Obama showing up on Zach Galifianakis' talk show, "Between Two Ferns," was not charitable. Doesn't the president have better things to do with his time than, once again, sucking up to Gen Xers and Millennials for some cool cred? You know who's not impressed by cool cred? Vladimir Putin. So unimpressed is he that his response to America's strongly worded condemnations about Crimea has basically been, "Yadda yadda yadda" then sending more Russian troops to take over more Ukrainian military bases.
My second thought was that the episode was hilarious. Regardless of the wisdom of a sitting president showing up on a Funny or Die web series to suffer the abuse of Galifianakis' not-so-bright host, the show started off funny. Even if you've grown weary of the "Between Two Ferns" schtick -- celebrities show up and are asked a number of insulting questions -- it works rather well here, mostly because Galifianakis doesn't completely pull his punches. (One of the ongoing issues with "Saturday Night Live" is that the show will make fun of things near the president, but rarely skewers him.)
At the start of the show, Galifianakis apologizes for canceling a few times and stumbles over the president's name. Meanwhile, the text identifying Obama reads: "Barack Obama (sp?) Community Organizer." He goes on to ask what it's like to be "the last black president" and "Where are you planning on building your presidential library? In Hawaii or your home country of Kenya?"
And Obama's generally aloof attitude works well as he insults Galifianakis in return. It's hard to imagine Bill Clinton or George W. Bush convincingly playing both calm and peeved.
But putting aside funny and that this was likely filmed weeks ago, it still irked me that amid international crisis the president's playing cute for a web video.
Then came the pitch for Healthcare.gov. We're a full three-and-a-half minutes in before it becomes apparent that Obama is there to plug something, which he makes clear by saying: "I wouldn't be with you here today if I didn't have something to plug. Have you heard of the Affordable Care Act?" ("Oh yeah, I heard about that. That's the thing that doesn't work?" is the response.)
It also becomes clear that this is a smart marketing play. To quote the president, "Let me be clear." Let me be clear that we're talking about marketing, not about party politics or campaigning or whether ACA should exist or the pageant of incompetence that was its rollout.
Of the hundreds of things that have to happen for ACA to work, getting young people to sign up for health-care exchanges is a big one. This has been hard for a number of reasons, including letting people stay on their parents' insurance until their mid-20s (but that's a policy argument best left alone), political apathy among youth (unless it involves "liking" something on Facebook), the general lack of interest in health insurance among healthy young people and a lack of awareness.
So instead of standing at a podium and lecturing, or running a multimillion dollar ad campaign (or only doing those things), the administration has gone fishing where the fish are: online, with a show well-known among influencers in the target market.
A number of people will not make it past my first reaction to this video, and the president will be loudly criticized for stooping to this level (and the Bush joke toward the end doesn't help matters).
You may feel the same. But if you consider yourself a marketing professional, watch the video for what it is: a six-minute ad. And then go to Facebook or Twitter to see how many likes and shares this is getting from "the youth." At last glance, "Between Two Ferns" and Zach Galifianakis were trending on Twitter, higher than "The Bachelor" finale and just below SXSW. Does that translate directly to sign-ups for Healthcare.gov? No. Would it be better if Healthcare.gov was trending? Absolutely. But at the very least the message is finally hitting the right target.