Clinton-Era 'Harry and Louise' Campaign Was Harbinger of Today's Health-Care Mess

Spots Also a Testament to Power of Political Advertising

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Back in the '90s when the Clintons were trying to get the votes for comprehensive health-care legislation, the Health Insurance Association of America ran a series of devastating TV ads using "condescending sophistry to create fear and misgivings among the electorate" as my old friend Bob Garfield put it 20 years ago.


The "Harry and Louise" ads showed a couple sitting around the kitchen table complaining about how their health-insurance coverage had been canceled and replaced with provisions they didn't want and that cost more.

The commercials drove government officials into near apoplexy. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman at the time of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, told reporters he was so enraged by the HIAA ads that he threatened to ask a subcommittee he chaired to investigate. "Rep. Dingell thinks the ads were rich in innuendo and falsehoods," said the congressman's press secretary. "There is widespread displeasure" on Capitol Hill over the campaign, he said.

Though a congressional hearing never was held, Association of National Advertisers Exec VP Dan Jaffe told us that he couldn't recall another time when a specific ad campaign was the sole focus of a proposed hearing.

Here's how our Washington editor at the time, Steven Colford, viewed the Harry and Louise ads:
"In five short months as an advertising team, Harry and Louise have merely: forced the White House to revamp its health-care plan; led first lady Hillary to rip them; and caused President Bill, begrudgingly, to invite their sponsors to help shape national policy.

"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 health-care 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."

It was as if Pepsi-Cola had forced Coke to reformulate its brands, Steve wrote. President Clinton blasted the HIAA's commercials as the work of "folks that are … desperate to keep the system we have now." The ads resulted in more than 250,000 phone calls. Can you imagine how many tweets they would have generated?

Power of advertising
You might not be surprised that I weighed in on the controversy. "Isn't it interesting that politicians seem to have more belief in the power of advertising than does the private sector?" I asked.

"I have the impression that politicians have a better understanding of how advertising works than corporate marketing chiefs. Political ads work on many more levels and accomplish much more than private-sector ads. And, as prominent Congressman Dan Rostenkowski wrote, 'there's a belief that they work.' I'm not convinced that the nation's CEOs share this conviction."

The late Mr. Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, also said at the time the spots "sent a message to some members of Congress reinforcing their fears that votes on the health plan would be difficult to explain and easy to caricature. So the timidity level here -- high in the best of times -- rose another notch."

Now I know why President Obama rushed through his health-care legislation. Although Harry and Louise were actually on his side this time around -- the ad agency responsible had retained rights to the intellectual property and had a change of heart (or clients) -- he was likely afraid of a similar barrage from other quarters that would have sent the timidity level of Congress soaring.

Such fear could also explain why the president made the now-infamous statement, "If you like your health-care plan, you'll be able to keep your health-care plan. Period."

As the AP reported, one explanation might be that "a good sales pitch must be brief, compelling, accurate. But when it comes to a complex product like health insurance, brevity and persuasiveness can take a toll on precision."

But that doesn't mean it was prudent, especially after the Harry and Louise spots created such a ruckus over the issue of canceled insurance policies. If cancellation was part of the Clinton scenario, wasn't it evident that certain policies would be taken away under Obamacare?

Maybe Harry and Louise is a vague memory to most health-insurance buyers (and no memory at all to younger people), but it seems to me the press should have been more alert to what the reaction would be when insurance policies suddenly got rescinded. Harry and Louise should have served as a warning of things to come.

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