Will a New Harry and Louise Return to Airwaves This Fall?

One Series of Ads Helped Derail Health-Care Reform Last Time Around

By Published on .

Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
The parents of modern issue advocacy advertising, Harry and Louise, could be poised to make yet another comeback in a new campaign promoting a national health-care agenda. It is fitting that the power couple of advocacy make their return in this latest round of health-care reform, even if they take a different point of view than they did in the 1990s. Without them, this debate would be like having Thanksgiving dinner without your crazy uncle.

Due to the importance of health-care reform to our nation, as well as its multi-faceted nature, there will be many sides pushing their ideas and propaganda to the American people the next few weeks. To date, ad spending is nearing $35 million, and we have only just begun. My question is: Will this be a brief skirmish, like that over the stimulus package, or a drawn-out war, as we saw with attempts to reform health care in the 1990s?

The Democrats in Washington are clearly hoping for a short fight. This White House demonstrates time and time again its mastery of understanding the media landscape. It's been outspoken and clear about the desire to have a bill finalized by the August Congressional recess. Some are asking what the rush is.

What is so special about August? TV viewership.

Health-care reform supporters do not want to face the re-embodiment of Harry and Louise in a protracted, TV-ad-driven fight that would have a much bigger impact when the TV viewers return from their vacations, swim meets and barbecues. As the audiences return and the American public gets back to its routine, more people will re-engage in the issues of the day. Without these summertime distractions, the plan will be dissected and cherry-picked much like the original "Harry & Louise" campaign did to Clinton's plan in the 1990s.

That campaign was a very methodical effort in highlighting unfavorable details of the Clinton proposal one by one, presenting them in a way that both the American public and journalists could discuss and debate. This started to erode public opinion of the plan, as well as political support. It died a death of 1,000 cuts.

The original "Harry & Louise" spots, which ran in 1993 and 1994, were produced by Goddard Claussen for the Health Insurance Association of America. Claussen retained the intellectual rights to the couple. They returned in 2008, however, this time advocating for health-care reform.

The next couple of weeks will be a fascinating case study showing how media and advertising, both old and new, are deployed to either fast track or to stall a proposed plan. The successes and failures of the next couple of weeks have the potential to reshape the advocacy marketplace just as "Harry & Louise" changed things for the past 15 years.

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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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