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Health Reform AdWatch: New ads mislead or dizzy seniors

Consumer Reports News: August 14, 2009 01:43 PM

Few groups are more coveted in the battle over health reform than seniors. The beneficiaries of 40-plus years of Medicare, America’s older adults are living longer, fuller lives than ever before and are very active participants in the democratic process. And this week, they’re the targets of two opposing ad campaigns. One is from American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the other from the 60Plus Association, a group that positions itself as a “conservative alternative” to AARP. Their home page has a photo of Pat Boone; AARP’s has a photo of Woodstock. ‘Nuff said.

Patronizing seniors with misinformation

The ad from 60PlusAssocation, running on cable TV, is sixty seconds of dramatically deployed misinformation. “Seniors have sacrificed,” a voiceover intones, as photos of the Great Depression, the landing at Normandy, white-haired veterans, and Arlington Cemetery cross the screen. Patriotic music and  a flag waving in the breeze segue to sad Grandmas in wheelchairs waiting for MRIs that, one assumes, will never come. The images are beyond condescending, right down to the man strapped to an oxygen tank with a doctor peering ominously down at him, as if ready to move in for the kill.

The ad repeats the usual scary predictions voiced by opponents of health reform, such as the charge that reform will limit your choice of doctors, result in long waits for care, and leave “government, not doctors, deciding if older patients are worth the cost.” (Uh, no, health reform does NOT promote euthanasia). It’s true that President Obama and House Democrats want to trim $500 billion in spending from the Medicare budget over the next 10 years, but these cuts would affect mainly providers, not benefits. And the new legislation would also pump in several hundred billion dollars in new Medicare funds targeted toward improving primary care and closing the “doughnut hole” that’s made prescription drugs unaffordable for many seniors.

AARP counters with dizzying ambulance ride

AARP ad In the opposite corner, this week AARP launched a full-court TV, Web, radio, and print campaign aimed at busting health-reform myths. In the TV ad, running in national and local markets, a speeding ambulance repeatedly gets blocked or cut off by cars as an announcer says, “Special interests are trying to block progress on health care reform, derailing the debate with myths and scare tactics.” (Get it? The ambulance is reform and the cars are special interests.) It then reassures viewers that health reform won’t—depending on the version of the ad—force you to give up your current coverage, weaken Medicare, or result in care rationing. Now, as it happens, we think the points are spot on; in fact our publisher, Consumers Union, has worked with AARP on advocating health reform. But while the ad may be intended to relieve fears, the veering ambulance, blaring sirens, and screeching tires made us dizzy and a tad nauseous. The subliminal message seems to be: Don’t bother your dear gray head with a lot of facts—just work up some anxiety picturing yourself in an ambulance that can’t get through traffic. Surely America’s adults, older or not, can handle the facts about reform and skip the drama.

Seen a health reform ad you want us to critique? Tell us about it here

Jamie Kopf Hirsh, associate editor

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

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