From D.C. to your TV: Ad blitz set on health bill

Groups try to intensify pressure on Congress

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / July 30, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The messages flashing across the screen are sponsored by groups with such generic names as “Patients United Now’’ and “Americans United for Change,’’ but the messages are anything but bland.

“It could raise taxes by $600 billion, even taxing soda!’’ one narrator warns. “Waiting hurts all of us,’’ another intones. One ad shows a football spiralling through the air. Yet another shows a snail creeping along until it is squashed - splat! - by a businessman’s shiny loafer.

House Democrats end impasse. A10.

The healthcare overhaul fight in Washington is bursting into America’s livingrooms, and interests from many bands on the political spectrum are trying to transform an often wonky debate over 1,000-page bills into an emotional pitch that can be captured in 30 seconds.

The airwaves blitz is intensifying as Congress prepares to return home for its monthlong summer recess without having cast crucial first-round votes on legislation. Political parties, unions, consumer groups, the healthcare industry, and disease activists see the next six weeks as pivotal in driving public opinion and influencing lawmakers’ votes on healthcare legislation this fall.

It could prove to be the most expensive issue-oriented advertising effort in history, with nearly $15 million a week already being spent on focused spots.

“August is definitely a very critical period, and I think the fact that everything points to Congress going away without passing something gives us the opportunity to keep up pressure on our members of Congress,’’ said Amy Menefee, spokeswoman for Patients United Now and Patients First, healthcare projects of the group Americans for Prosperity.

Healthcare is hardly a new subject in political advertising, and familiar characters in the genre have resurfaced once again to tell their stories: The Canadian who almost died of a brain tumor her government wanted to wait months to fix. The friendly middle-aged cancer survivor who can’t afford coverage.

But the interests are also experimenting with creative ways to get their message across. There is a Web skit showing a bleeding man begging for a doctor as a bureaucrat stares at him blankly. A TV spot shows a snail - representing health reform - moving too slowly to escape the fast-moving shoe.

“It’s going to become a much less technical argument and a much more emotional argument,’’ said Brooks Jackson, director of, which monitors the factual accuracy of political players and advertising. “I think that’s certainly what a number of states have to look forward to in August.’’

A drawn-out ad war in local television markets this summer was something proponents of reform had hoped to avoid. But now that both the House and Senate will miss self-imposed deadlines for passing initial bills before the August recess, the political center of gravity will shift away from Capitol Hill and into districts where voters will be confronting members of their Washington delegations. The implications for next year’s congressional elections are clear.

“Public opinion and the president’s approval rating are going to be more important than the actual language in the bill,’’ said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad spending. “Members of Congress are going to vote based on the question, ‘Am I going to get credited or blamed for this in 2010.’ ’’

In New England, Maine voters are likely to be targeted by liberal groups because its two senators - particularly Olympia Snowe, a key negotiator in the healthcare discussions - are poised to play a crucial role in deciding the fate of the legislation.

“It’s really up to Senator Snowe whether we will have health insurance reform . . . or whether premiums keep going up and more and more Americans lose healthcare,’’ says one radio ad that began running this week. In New Hampshire, Republicans have targeted Representative Carol Shea Porter as vulnerable.

In 1993 and 1994, “Harry and Louise,’’ a fictional middle-aged couple in a series of television commercials sponsored by the insurance industry, took on iconic status as stand-ins for middle-class Americans worried that President Clinton’s healthcare plan could increase costs and eliminate choice.

Then, Harry and Louise virtually had the airwaves to themselves; this year dozens of groups have already dumped about $50 million into a cacophony of different messages, and spending has now hit a clip of about $2 million a day on average, according to Tracey’s group. The prescription drug industry could spend as much as $100 million on advertising in the coming months, according to one reported figure, though an industry spokesman would not confirm it.

Another striking change is that advertisers supporting the healthcare legislation have outspent groups opposing the overhaul by a factor of 2-to-1, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Liberal groups, which gained enormous organizing and fund-raising power in the last election cycle, are far wealthier, more organized, and more convinced that they have an important role to play in passing the plan.

But it is not just groups such as MoveOn on the pro-overhaul side: At least for now, business and industry groups have formed ad hoc alliances with important liberal organizations to cheer for the plan, even if they disagree on the details. Both groups have a strong motivation to get involved - businesses are chafing against ever-growing healthcare costs, and drug companies and insurers worry about deep public resentment of their enormous profits and the threat that Washington under Democratic rule could treat them more harshly if they do not cooperate.

Two weeks ago, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the lobbying group that represents the drug industry, teamed with Families USA to run new ads starring the same actors who played Harry and Louise 16 years ago.

“A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job this time,’’ Louise says at her breakfast table in the new ad.