So much for the notion you can't fight 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Regardless of whether President Clinton emerges from the political wars with a national healthcare plan he can call his own, Harry and Louise will be remembered long after their last 30-second TV spot fades out as among the most effective, and arguably controversial, characters ever to appear in an ad campaign.
And so, too, will the client and agency behind them-a troubled, little-known trade association of small and midsize insurance companies and a little political consulting shop in trendy Malibu, Calif., whose previous boast was helping elect Jimmy Carter president.
But the whole proved to be greater than the sum of the parts after the Health Insurance Association of America hired Goddard*Claussen/First Tuesday as its agency of record. The pairing made advertising history.
Imagine Coca-Cola Co. conceding that Pepsi advertising had forced Coke to reformulate its brands. That's comparable to what the HIAA campaign has achieved. Just last week, President Clinton, in a speech in Shreveport, La., blasted the HIAA's commercials as "ads of folks that are so desperate to keep the system we have now."
And Ira Magaziner, the White House's point man on healthcare, concedes the HIAA ads starring an everyday married couple named Harry and Louise, with occasional visits from neighbor Libby, have hit their target dead on.
"The ads are misleading, designed to scare people," Mr. Magaziner told Advertising Age last week. "I don't think they help us move toward constructive healthcare reform. But if you spend $15 million on advertising, you'll have some effect. And the ads are well-made. So they have an effect-we think a harmful effect, a misleading effect."
Perhaps their ire was also triggered by the recent news that the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers oppose the Clinton plan.
HIAA President William Gradison, who assumed the office a year ago after 18 years in Congress, has another measure of the ads' effectiveness. Speaking to an insurance industry group last week, Mr. Gradison said the campaign has generated more than 250,000 telephone calls.
The basic concept for the HIAA's advertising sprang from an industry speech by Mr. Gradison last summer, in which he said decisions on healthcare would be made by Americans talking at their kitchen tables.
"Our early advertising, in spring 1993, was man-on-the-street," said Chip Kahn, HIAA exec VP. "But it had no resonance like Harry and Louise .*.*. who hit their stride in the fall."
That's when the HIAA started pumping money-about $6 million at the time-into the Harry and Louise campaign, heavying up in Washington, on Cable News Network nationally and in select markets.
"Goddard/Claussen did something that few people have been able to do-take a simple concept from a complicated issue and make it into something that people can relate to," Mr. Kahn said.
Ben Goddard agreed, ranking it right up next to his pro-Carter work of 1976.
"We've definitely made HIAA a significant player in the healthcare debate," said Mr. Goddard, agency president. "Before the ads, we were frozen out by the White House, and the media weren't paying any attention to us."
But if the ads have been effective, have they also been accurate?
Uwe Reinhardt, James Madison professor of political economy at Princeton University, graded the HIAA campaign a 4, on a truth scale of 1 to 10.
"But being truthful is not the game of advertising," Mr. Reinhardt said. "It's hard to call them outright lies but ..."
Mr. Reinhardt said the ads reflect concerns of an industry trying to protect its members from the financial hurt that might ensue from capping premiums, as the president's plan proposes.
"More than a third of all premiums are for administrative costs and commissions," Mr. Reinhardt said. "The HIAA opposes the Clinton plan because they want to protect that cash flow, and there is no imperative for their ads to be truthful if that is their mandate. They're defending the incomes of a subset of Americans-their members-and that is what Gradison is supposed to do. If they paid me what they pay him, I'd use every trick in my advertising and not be a faithful ally of the truth."
The HIAA's Mr. Kahn called the group's commercials neither corporate nor political but rather a hybrid. David Doak, a veteran political consultant, called them comparative spots, with an attitude.
"First of all, they're pretty good spots," said Mr. Doak, a partner at the consultancy of Doak, Shrum, Harris, Carrier, Devine, Arlington, Va. "They're soft, which they had to be ... and they're probably more effective with people in general than they are with people in Washington, where opinions are already formed."
Mr. Doak said the White House should fight fire with fire.
"The White House should be responding to this," he said. "The way to do it would be to go straight after Harry and Louise ... to tell viewers that they've been watching Harry and Louise, actors who are paid by the insurance industry to kill a healthcare plan to keep their money safe. Harry and Louise have become so identifiable that if they were unmasked, it could be very harmful to the [HIAA] campaign."
To date, the White House response has been sporadic tongue lashings by the president and first lady, and that's not surprising to Mr. Goddard.
"The Democratic National Committee and Hillary have had the same responses-attack the messenger, not the message," he said.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime student of political advertising, also conceded the HIAA campaign has been effective. Asked about the spots' accuracy, she said: "They simplify the issues, and their sins are more one of omission than commission."