Don Draper Takes on Health Care

President Obama is about to undertake the most daunting branding challenge in recent history: Sell skeptical America on a plan that doesn’t kick in until 2014. Former advertising executive James P. Othmer gives Obamacare a Madison Avenue makeover.

03.22.10 11:59 PM ET

Obama is not a brand. Just ask Desiree Rogers, the former White House social secretary who made the mistake last spring of equating the president of the United States with the tagline for the soft drink Snapple when she told WSJ magazine, "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand.” Now, she’s looking for work.

Similarly, health-care reform is not a product. Just ask the dozens of corporations, industry coalitions, and political organizations on both sides of the issue who have thrown tens of millions of dollars into TV ads, and who will start it all over again today, with fresh campaigns to sell or un-sell the unbranded non-product that is health-care reform.

The Brand Obama that I want to see moving forward is the one too busy fixing things to stop to talk to the likes of me.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that presidents do continue to be a brands even after elections, and that their policies are the products upon which their equity is built and that in the case of health-care reform, the real selling has only just begun.

In advertising parlance, the product (health-care reform) is pretty much the same, but now the brief (how to sell it) has significantly changed. Sunday, Obama was selling something to consumers who had a choice. Today, he is selling the justification of a product that, like it or not, will be a part of every American’s life. And he’s selling it to a demographic filled with a Toyota-esque anger and cynicism and a deepening sense that neither side is telling anything near the truth.

In a product brief, the first question often posed by an agency to its client is, Why are you advertising? The most recent and frequent answer to this hypothetical question from Messrs. Plouffe and Axelrod seems to be along the lines of “To demystify and clearly explain the legislation, especially for the enraged half of the population that wants nothing to do with it.” It’s a valid enough intent, but one has to wonder how they can have more success, post-legislation, enlightening a jaded, cynical audience about an issue it can no longer influence. Early reports mention the likelihood of a talking points campaign that will attempt to break down in 30-second spots that which could not be sufficiently explained by either side for more than a year. Good luck with that.

Indeed, at 2,700 pages, with an additional 153 pages of last-minute changes, this is a product that seems to defy advertising and, if anything, seems designed to confuse. Instead, for a public that basically wants to know, How will this effect me?, what’s needed isn’t so much an ad but some kind of James Cameron-invented, alternate-reality avatar module that will immerse consumers onto the planet Healthora, where every one of us will play the role of Jake Sully and our health care future will finally, magically, make sense, down to the last penny on our monthly premium.

Often, an agency will look to case histories of similar products and marketplaces for lessons learned before determining a course of action, and it’s been reported that the Obama administration has been studying the public’s reception to President Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid reform of 1965. Again, not a bad thought, but the circumstances surrounding the two bills are vastly different. Johnson announced his intentions for reform as part of his vision for a “Great Society” during his State of the Union Address in February 1965. It was passed by the end of July by a margin of 307-116 in the House and 70-24 in the Senate. Not one Republican voted for the Obama legislation. Also, in a nice piece of branding, I mean statesmanship, Johnson signed his bill in Independence, Missouri, and enrolled none other than Harry S Truman and Bess Truman as the first card-carrying Medicare beneficiaries.

While some may realize immediate benefits from Obama’s program, the vast majority of the population won’t see results, positive or negative, until enrollment commences sometime in 2014. For an instant-gratification world quick to judge, this is a long time to keep the populace informed, engaged, and satisfied, especially compared to the fact that two months after Johnson’s legislation passed, more than 1 million Medicare patients had already been admitted to hospitals. Increasingly in adland the concept of a campaign, or a fixed period of time during which an advertising message is broadcast, is becoming obsolete. In a 24/7 media cycle during which consumers can pick and choose when and where they want to engage with content, it’s important to keep the dialogue going, but not to inundate.

My advice to the president: Do the heavy lifting behind the scenes and keep your message in, and your face out of, the next waves of ads. Over the last year we’ve all kind of seen too much process, from the town halls to the Tea Parties to the back slapping and hand shaking taking place on the Senate floor Sunday night between people who had spent the day calling each other baby killers and racists. Transparency in branding and in politics is a good thing in 2010. Ubiquity, not so much.

The Brand Obama that I want to see moving forward is the one too busy fixing things to stop to talk to the likes of me. When the bill is handed to you act like you’ve been there before and will soon be there again. For instance, don’t Tweet: “In your face, Rush! #HR 3590.” Do tell thanks, but there’s no need for a celebratory health-care song on YouTube. In fact, given the public mood, it might be a good idea to go as far as to somehow "misplace" your NCAA pool (especially if you have Cornell making the Sweet 16). To win again would only be construed as an act of unconscionable hubris.

Finally, regarding the signing: At all costs, avoid using the words Mission and Accomplished; avoid giving any speeches on aircraft carrier decks or standing on top of a hospital gurney in full surgical scrubs. In fact, rather than travel to Independence, Missouri, or to some medical facility where someone is receiving the first token benefit, stay back at the office. Take a few minutes from your incredibly busy day spent fixing Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy and helping people who’d be a lot less likely to be sick in the first place if they had jobs, and put pen to paper. Sure, let someone film it. It might make for a nice ad in 2012. Then get back to work.

James P. Othmer is the author of ADLAND: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet and the novel The Futurist.