HOW CLINTON LOST VS. HARRY & LOUISE

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An unexpected part of the debate over healthcare reform is a raging controversy over the role of advertising. Critics see healthcare reform advertising as yet another example of moneyed interests using one-sided sound bites to exert excessive influence over public policy.

I see the opposite. Healthcare reform advertising is demonstrating how politically inspired advertising can improve public debate and the legislative process in ways that nothing else can.

A lot of people think the famous "Harry and Louise" ads for the Health Insurance Association of America transformed the healthcare reform debate by putting the Clinton plan and its successors on the defensive. The ads were well executed and were part of a clear strategy that featured careful timing, a tight regional focus and sufficient resources at the right time and place.

But this is hardly a guarantee of success in the rough and tumble political arena. Two additional factors were essential in the Harry and Louise saga. First, the ads dared to say something that could be contradicted. Harry and Louise said the Clinton plan would be an elaborate government intervention, would take away insurance plans people were satisfied with and would bring price controls and rationing. As the public waited for a refutation, the debate took a new tone. The failure of the White House to provide a convincing rebuttal was duly noted by the public and by political commentators.

As the news media and others joined in to reinforce the same points the ads made, the Clinton administration chose to withdraw its elaborate health reform plan rather than let the public decide whether it liked or disliked the features brought forward by Harry and Louise.

This process was in complete contrast to what had happened earlier when Hillary Clinton attacked the "unconscionable" pharmaceutical firms for keeping prices so high that many children failed to get needed vaccinations. The news media and pharmaceutical firms quickly demonstrated that Hillary's accusation was untrue (most unvaccinated children can get vaccines for free or at a nominal cost), and the pharmaceutical industry escaped at least one of the many harms thrown its way.

The other essential part of the Harry and Louise story was the "leverage" the ads obtained from the very people the ads attacked. Counterattacks by the Clinton administration and its allies amplified the ads far beyond their original reach. Many regions of the U.S. never saw the original ads, but saw meaty excerpts on the evening news ("This is what the Clintons are worried about"), saw them again when the Clintons spoofed the ads at a Washington roast ("This is what the Clintons are making fun of"), and yet again when the Democratic National Committee ran a satire on the Harry and Louise ads ("Remember the Harry and Louise ads?").

It was not inevitable that this point-counterpoint media exposure would work to the advantage of Harry and Louise, however. The ads were helped because they had already gained credibility from the Clinton administration's failure to rebut their initial claims. Had that credibility not been there, the leverage would have hurt rather than helped.

Many other health reform ads have hit the airwaves and newspaper pages. Some have done well, some have backfired, some were amplified by the media and some were simply forgotten.

Overall, the unfolding drama of health reform advertising offers important lessons. First, commercial speech is an essential corrective in the political process. Private firms under political attack are bound to find that press releases and campaign donations are an inadequate response to the president's bully pulpit. Their best recourse is often paid advertising, which is far more open than back-door lobbying or political fundraising.

Second, what counts in political advertising is marketplace dynamics, not money. Do the challenges set forth in ads get demolished by the other side or do they emerge unscathed? The answer determines whether the ad promotes or impedes the advertiser's goals. Credibility is everything in the advertising business, and credibility is earned not by spending money but by the favorable outcome of an open interchange that begins with the rebuttable statement or attack.

Finally, and most importantly, political advertising brings to bear the powerful self-correcting forces that govern all open markets. Ads generate scrutiny from a skeptical public and a legion of reporters, plus the possibility of outraged reactions from politicians who can communicate to millions of voters through the news media. Harry and Louise ads gained their power not by stifling debate but by inspiring it. Healthcare reform advertising is providing a striking example of the benefits of commercial speech under the full protection of the First Amendment.

Mr. Calfee, a former marketing professor and Federal Trade Commission economist, is writing a book on health information in advertising for the American Enterprise Institute, Washington.

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