NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Harry and Louise, the ad couple who helped derail Bill Clinton's push for health-care reform in the early '90s, are back, and this time they're playing for the other team. They're perhaps symbolic of the mid-summer muddle in which a number of players who were openly hostile to the Clinton push are claiming to be for reform -- of some sort.
And though some observers doubt that the fictitious duo will be nearly as effective this time around, their re-entry has left patient-advocate groups and private insurance companies scrambling to counteract the message as President Barack Obama is pressing legislators to agree on the estimated $1 trillion health-care reform before Congress recesses next month.
Harry and Louise entered advertising lore in the early 1990s as the married couple who opposed President Bill Clinton's health-care reform package -- and ultimately proved to be one of the catalysts that doomed the plan. Now they're supporting Mr. Obama's health-care initiative -- as vague as that may be at the moment -- as part of a three-week, $4 million "Harry and Louise" campaign running on cable and broadcast networks. The effort is being co-sponsored by the consumer health-care advocacy group Families USA and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the pharma industry's chief lobby group. Both are based in Washington.
Ironically, the two groups have long been adversaries when it comes to health care, but PhRMA President-CEO Billy Tauzin said it's time to recognize the common goal of reform.
"This is a historic opportunity for change," Mr. Tauzin said in a statement, "and working together we can achieve our goal, which will benefit both patients and the U.S. economy."
The quandary remains, however, the philosophical difference between those who believe the government should run health care, and those who believe the system should be fixed so that those without access to care have it whether they can pay for it or not.
A different debate
Harry and Louise were resurrected as proponents of health-care reform to show how Mr. Obama's plan differs from the previous Democratic reform plans of Mr. Clinton, said Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack.
"Having Harry and Louise speaking positively about the need for health reform is probably the best symbol [of] how different the debate is this time," Mr. Pollack told the National Journal. Families USA estimates that more than 3.5 million Americans have lost their health coverage in the last 18 months.
The couple even has its own website, harryandlouise.org, where viewers can see the new commercial. The latest iteration is somewhat similar to the first ads that aired in 1993, showing the couple speaking at the same kitchen table (although Harry has less hair and Louise is, well, a little heavier after 16 years).
"A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time," Louise says in the latest commercial, which was again the product of Washington, D.C.-based Goddard Claussen. In 1993, though, she sat across from Harry and said, "Having choices we don't like is no choice at all."
Harry and Louise made a return to the airwaves in 2008 with similar creative. In a 30-second spot that aired nationally before the election, the couple talked about health-care reform, but took no position. "Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda," Louise said in a spot sponsored by Families USA, the Cancer Action Network, the American Hospital Association, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Catholic Health Association.
The commercials that aired 16 years ago were sponsored by the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA, which later merged with another group to become the present-day America's Health Insurance Plans) and warned about the consequences of a government-run health-care system.
Insurance companies and patient-rights groups are now planning to jump into the fray again.
"The insurance industry, collectively, will be directing some advertising toward swaying public opinion," says Steve Trattner, CMO for Miami-based Cinergy Health, one of the largest private insurance groups in the country. But he said advertising won't be the primary focus -- not yet, at any rate. "Our approach is what the insurance industry has done for a long time -- working with senators and representatives to educate them about the ramifications of the decisions they might be making."
But while Mr. Trattner says he doesn't think the industry will get into a tit-for-tat TV ad campaign with the backers of health-care reform, both AHIP and the activist group Conservatives for Patients' Rights already have their own national spots running on cable and broadcast networks, targeting both the public and policymakers.
AHIP's spot, titled "Illness," is in support of reform, with a narrator saying "Let's fix health care. If everyone's covered, we can make health care as affordable as possible." But the end of the commercial is careful to make note that AHIP is "supporting bipartisan reforms that Congress can build on" -- a not-so-subtle indication that the insurance trade group, while supporting reform, is against some of the more restrictive dialogue the Democrats have presented.
In part, that's addressed in the 30-second ad from CPR, which shows a woman speaking to her doctor about a medical condition when, from behind the doctor, out pops a nerdy-looking, bow tie-wearing bureaucrat holding a clipboard that says "Federal Health Police." He shakes his head and wags his finger "no" as the narrator intones "Tell Congress to put patients first and say no to a government-run health-care plan."
"Look, everybody -- including the insurance industry -- agrees we need health-care reform," said Mr. Trattner. "The issue is how we go about it. Trying to mandate individual health-insurance plans is not the answer."
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released lasst week found that 49% of Americans approved of Mr. Obama's handling of health care, down from 57% in April.
Harry and Louise's job description is dramatically different today than it was in the 1990s. During the Clinton administration, all they had to do was poke holes in a complex government plan -- something TV advertising lends itself to. This time around, the characters must use the medium to build support for a complex government plan.
Former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts, now the president for the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said he doesn't think the ads are going to do much to help Mr. Obama's cause.
"What's important to remember is that nobody -- not insurance companies, not drugmakers, not doctors, not patients, not politicians -- disagrees that reform is needed," Mr. Pitts said. "That said, 2009 is very different from the initial iteration of Harry and Louise. The average television viewer and YouTube viewer is much more sophisticated and much more aware that these are two paid actors. They were paid 16 years ago to be against health-care reform, and now they're being paid this year to be for health-care reform. If they were paid tomorrow to be New York Yankees fans, you would see a commercial for that."