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Health Reform AdWatch: Can you make that a little more bland?

Consumer Reports News: August 12, 2009 02:57 PM

With our elected officials back home in their districts for the August recess, TV and internet ads about the proposed health-reform legislation are reaching fever pitch—especially in key states where congresspeople remain undecided or may switch sides. Since part of Consumer Reports’ mission is to comment on truth (or lack thereof) in advertising, we can’t resist diving into the melee and offering our AdWatch analysis of some of the more prominent health reform spots. Our goal over the next few weeks will be to help you weed through the madness, and direct you to comprehensive, well-researched information you can rely on to make up your mind about the various reform options. When possible, we’ll try to critique the ads in pairs in order to compare what opposing sides are saying.

First, though, we thought we’d start with two examples of what you might call the "vague pro-reform ad." A sign of changing times if there ever was one, these ads are sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry and insurance companies, respectively, both of whom are spending big bucks this time around to support health reform—on their own terms, of course. Result: two ads that are a little confusing and strangely bland.

Harry and Louise return, say little

The characters are familiar: It’s Harry and Louise, the fictional couple who appeared in 1994 in a series of insurance industry-sponsored ads that were largely credited with derailing Clinton-era health reform.  Now the couple is back, but singing an entirely different tune. This time, the spot is co-sponsored by Families USA, a consumer advocacy group, and the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, the key lobby group for the pharmaceutical industry. (Yeah, health reform makes for strange bedfellows.) Back at their kitchen table—cleverly updated to include a laptop—Harry and Louise chat about how much we need to reform the health care system. They keep it vague, and painfully simplistic. "We need good coverage people can afford," Louise says. "Coverage they can get." (You think?) Her cryptic closing words: "A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time." True? Yes. Useful? Informative? Not so much. Though we are glad to see H and L looking so fit after 15 years. They must have good health coverage.

"Bipartisan" as a code word

Another plain-vanilla ad comes from America’s Health Insurance Plans, the new iteration of the same industry group that sponsored the 1994 Harry and Louise ads trashing the health-reform plan. Called "Illness," the ad features images of different Americans while a voice-over says, "Illness doesn’t care where Illness health reform advertisement you live" (um, duh?) and talks about fixing the health-care system so all Americans will have coverage and "the words ‘preexisting condition’ will become a thing of the past." That’s totally nice, if you put aside the fact that it’s the insurance industry that invented preexisting conditions in the first place. This time around, health insurers have basically agreed to ignore preexisting conditions in exchange for government subsidies and what’s called an individual mandate, which will require people not insured by an employer to buy insurance on their own. So, forced to renounce the policies they created, the insurers make it sound like the whole thing was their idea. Also, listen for the word "bipartisan" at the end of the ad, as in, "We’re America’s health insurance companies, supporting bipartisan reforms that Congress can build on." Translation: Don’t give the Democrats everything they’re asking for. PLEASE. See, under the proposed new system, people could buy individual insurance either from private insurance companies or an optional public plan. The insurers—and many Republicans—are opposed to that public option, which will compete with the private plans. Hence, "bipartisan" is a nice way of saying, "No public option."

Have you seen an ad in your home state or city that you’d like us to take a look at? Let us know via the Comments link. And stay tuned for the next round of health reform ad critiques via blog and, beginning next week, video.

Jamie Kopf Hirsh, associate editor

Take a look at our comprehensive online guide to health reform, and find out how we'd fix the broken health-care system.

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