Health-Care-Debate Advertising Runs Risk of Overexposure

Can Consumers Find One Clear Signal in $100 Million Worth of Noise?

By Published on .

Evan Tracey
Evan Tracey
As health-care ad spending nears $100 million and the president makes his rounds on most of the talk shows, is it possible that the American media consumer is on the verge of a health-care overload? Now I know between cable TV, Facebook and a good book (on your Kindle, of course), there are plenty of ways to escape this media onslaught, but it's getting harder to do so and soon may become impossible.

With more than $30 million spent in August alone by opponents, proponents and other interested bystanders alike on health-care ads -- and more than half of that total already spent in September -- the airwaves are filling up by the media ton. Adding to this rhetorical landslide: cable-news chatter, newspaper op-eds, musings on Twitter and other social-media platforms and, of course, the White House's PR machine.

Together, these create an echo chamber of sound bites that are force fed into American living rooms, attempting to sell ideas related to one of the more complicated and controversial issues of our time.

This is a far cry from the health-care reform efforts of the 1990s, where the ads were left to a select few. In just the last 60 days, 49 different groups have aired nearly 100,000 TV commercials about federal health-care policy. As a result of all these ads, advocacy groups have discovered influencing and connecting with viewers is difficult to say the least. The debate has become a patchwork of messages dispersed by organizations with a whole host of different and competing agendas.

Recently, health-care advertising has seen a profound shift in the balance between pro- and anti-reform groups. In the last 60 days, more ads have aired advocating against the bill than have run in support of reform. This is in stark contrast to earlier this year when pro-reform ads far outpaced those opposed. This means the messages from both sides are getting more aggressive and are starting to look a lot like political campaign ads in the final days.

While the White House has not invested a lot in ads, relying on supporter groups, it is still getting a message out. The president's popularity is going to determine the size of his bully pulpit. This is, no doubt, the reason for the host of speeches, interviews and even a cover story in Men's Health magazine. This PR blitz is clearly a way for the White House to not only control the message through earned media, but also to keep the president in the public view.

The upcoming weeks and months are going to be a true challenge for ad makers and buyers alike. There's a small chance we'll see some sort of advertising wizardry -- something similar to what happened in the 1990s with Harry and Louise -- and someone will find the correct metaphor or message to convince the American public the plan is worth passing (or defeating).

More likely, it will be the message delivery that will win this battle. At this point, health-care reform is an overexposed issue. With so many competing messages and messengers, the American public is likely to remain more confused than informed. The final fate of the health-care bill will come down to a few members of the U.S. Senate. With so many stakeholders, interest groups, lawmakers, spin doctors and talk-show hosts trying to get their two cents across via an overabundance of old and new media channels, I will be interested to see who will ultimately cut through the all the message clutter and take control of the message and the debate.

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Evan Tracey is the founder and president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.

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