Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Harry & Louise

TNR is reporting that the banking industry is planning on brushing off the health insurance industry’s old tactic of inventing mascot “typical Americans” to deliberately mislead the public. Consumers—which I hesitate to equate with “the public,” though it’s certainly closer to it than the bank lobby—aren’t going to take it lying down:

The [banking] coalition has solicited pitches from at least four advertising firms. The source didn’t specify the price tag for the campaign, but, perhaps tellingly, said it’s intended to counter what the coalition expects to be $5 million in spending from consumer groups.

There are few episodes in the history of public persuasion that I find more irritating than that of Harry and Louise. To give a quick primer, here’s Wiki:

“Harry and Louise” was the name of a television commercial funded by the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), a health insurance industry lobbying group, in opposition to President Bill Clinton‘s proposed health care plan in 1993. The ad depicted a white middle-class couple, portrayed by actors Harry Johnson and Louise Caire Clark, despairing over the allegedly bureaucratic nature of the plan and urged viewers to contact their representatives in Congress. The commercial was created by public relations consultants Ben Goddard and Rick Claussen of Goddard Claussen.[1]

Though the use of puppets as stand-ins for the people an advertiser is trying to convince is as old as advertising itself, what irks me is that as a strategy it’s unapologetially manipulative, designed on the assumption of an infantilized American populace who don’t respond to reasoned argument, but only to didactic, Sunday school-style, vigniettes. It bothers me less when Nabisco does it to sell cookies because the stakes are lower; its a private company appealing to a private individual who’s decision to be convinced, while it might result in her developing type 2 diabetes, doesn’t bear on any larger public good.

Harry and Louise destroyed the prospect for meaningful healthcare reform under Clinton, opening the door for the free expansion of the predatory and monopolistic tactics and profiteering the industry has indulged in for the past fifteen years, at the American public’s catastrophic expense.

The health care debate of 1993 was deadly serious (as will be the one coming up later this summer), and as voting citizens, people have a responsibility to engage the debate as adults, with the public interest—and not only the aggregate of private interests—in mind. That responsibility is even greater for law-makers and the media. In 1993, everyone failed in that responsibility.

Best laid plans wrote about the corruption behind the campaign. Sample:

The strategic thinking that went into the Harry and Louise ads went far beyond the concept of überyuppies translating a 1300-page bill for the ostensible benefit of the average American. The narrow release of the ads ensured their exposure to power players in Washington, and the so-called grassroots movement behind them was ready to do whatever it took to kill the Clinton bill. As Goddard explained, “We had outreach campaigns to friends and family, if you will, in the insurance industry and in other industries that were supportive.” These supportive interest groups, Goddard’s “friends and family,” went to impressive lengths to keep their influential audience: according to the Center for Public Integrity, over 85 members of Congress went on vacations to locales such as California, Florida, Jamaica, and France during 1992 and 1993, at the expense of the health care industry. And you wonder why your insurance premiums are so high.

President Clinton presented his Health Security Act to a joint session of Congress and a prime-time television audience in September of 1993. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted shortly after the speech found that 57 percent of Americans approved of the plan. Six months later, the HIAA campaign, headed by Harry and Louise, had caused a twenty-point drop in approval ratings, prompting Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to declare it “the single most destructive campaign I’ve seen in thirty years.”

The strategy was destructive not only to Americans but to what we have left of democracy: the ultimate result of the campaign has been a nationwide increase in the number of uninsured individuals and a strengthening of the HIAA’s influence over Congress. Harry and Louise demonstrated to us how easily special interest groups with enormous budgets can influence the laws under which we all live.

My own provider recently informed me that my type of policy is being discontinued, and offered me an alternative plan at $2500 a year. I haven’t bothered to read the new plan yet. For that kind of money, I think that someone owes me a trip to Jamaica.


UPDATE: I’m giving the following its own post. This post is too long… it’s buried here.

While I’m on the health care issue, I want to quickly respond to the Canada-bashing that seems so rote in the US re: our public system. As a Canadian living in the States for the past year (on my university’s insurance plan), I can say that there is absolutely no contest between the systems. Even with that coverage, I’ve rung up more money than is comfrotable on a student’s budget. Plus, were I to have an emergency outside of my local hospital (with which the university has a relationship) it’s dubious whether I would be covered at all. In Canada the threat of debt slavery doesn’t hang over my head every time I leave my neighbourhood (or city, or province…). As a second experiential point, I’ve had to visit the emergency room once, and the wait was comparable to any experience I’ve had in Canada (in all my life, the average has probably been 2 or 3 hours, though once I had to wait 8 at a particularly crappy hospital in Montreal).

Yes, if I need an MRI for something non-debilitating or life threatening I might have to wait three to six months, but frankly… that’s fine. It’s worth it knowing that everyone has access. And if I really needed the scan or some other procedure, if it was an emergency, I would get (and have gotten) it immediately.

Here are some exceprts from a note I wrote last year about why Obama with Hillary’s healthcare plan would be my dream candidate. It amounts to a somewhat more abstract argument for universal coverage (i.e. single-payer):

Main reasons:

1-Universal health-care in the States is an incredible legacy waiting to happen: Almost half a century after he was only Premier of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas, the catalyst that started the chain reaction the resulted in universal health care in Canada, was voted in a massive national competition run by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the Greatest Canadian (they don’t like him that much in Alberta, but everywhere else the mention of his name often causes Canadians to swoon). He beat not only John A MacDonald and all the founding fathers, but our war prime ministers, Terry Fox, Lester B Pearson (Canadian hero for founding peacekeeping at the UN), Glenn Gould, Margaret Atwood, Joni Mitchell, Dahlia Lithwick, and myself!

2-Universal health care might get Americans to chill out. The fact that I know that no matter what happens to me it’s impossible for it to come down to a choice between preventative heart surgery (or whatever) and any future dreams of higher education, supporting a family, or buying a house, is a major contributor to my ability to sleep at night.

3-All the typical reasons why Obama supporters like him over Clinton. I’m not going bore you with them.

Why do I care as a Canadian?

In accordance with reason 1, a legacy like that would give “government” Democrats (as opposed to no-government Republicans… yes I realize that that’s a bit pathetic) something to rally around, as has occurred in Canada (though yes, it’s been taken a bit too far). Democrats are much more Canada friendly and, I believe, far more constructive as participants in the global sphere than Republicans.

In accordance with reason 2, a chilled out American population may be a bit more reasonable in valuing quality of life rather than raw economic numbers like GDP and productivity per capita. I hypothesize that suddenly the languages being spoken by the Europe, Canada, etc. won’t seem so foreign. It may also, and I grant that this is a bit of a stretch, alleviate the tension that manifests itself in the paranoia that let Iraq happen, and let Bush threaten the amazing Canadian-American legacy of sharing the longest undefended border in the world.

Finally, I may be moving to the US for school next year, and who knows what might keep me there (could be anything in the world’s most dynamic economic/academic/cultural hub). I would find the decision to stay much easier if there were universal healthcare.


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