Celeb Outreach

Will the Celebrity-Backed Push for Obamacare Enrollment Work?

In a bid to persuade millions of members of Generation Y to sign up for coverage as the program goes online, a string of familiar faces is poised to take their star power to the airwaves. But the celebrity tactic has failed before, reports Nina Strochlic.

10.01.13 8:45 AM ET

Back in July, a group of Hollywood stars gathered at the White House to strategize a push for registration after the October 1 rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Among others, Amy Poehler, Jennifer Hudson, Kal Penn, and representatives for Oprah Winfrey, Alicia Keys, and the Funny or Die team offered their influence during a meeting with senior aide Valerie Jarrett and, briefly, President Obama himself.

On Monday, the first result of that brainstorm hit the Internet: a pro bono Funny or Die spoof featuring Hudson impersonating Scandal’s political “fixer” Olivia Pope. The clip shows troubled Washingtonians finding their problems have already been solved by Obamacare. A handful more ads will be released in the coming weeks.

But despite two Hollywood-heavy campaign seasons, leading the GOP twice to dub Obama the “celebrity president,” research is against Team Obama’s reliance on advertisements and PSAs featuring stars. Such marketing, with a few exceptions, does worse with viewers across the board, said Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president of marketing for the television analytics company Ace Metrix. Of the 2,000-odd political ads released during the 2012 campaign, the ones for which Team Obama enlisted the help of Sarah Jessica Parker and Vogue’s Anna Wintour, among other celebrities, were the worst performing, Symonds said.

Still, to build a balanced market for Obamacare, the administration needs an estimated 2.7 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 35 to sign up, many of whom aren’t tuned in to traditional news and have little to no understanding of the law’s specifics.

“Celebrities can drive awareness, and there are not a tremendous amount of creative angles out there for [Obama] and others to talk about implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” Symonds said. This “is an easy way to say, ‘I can go to this person and have them explain it rather than have a less well-known person explain a complex issue.’” That’s where the attention-grabbing and shareable ads, aimed at people who use Twitter to follow celebrities rather than track the congressional debacle, can play a role.

“A lot of people the White House and administration are trying to enroll don’t exactly read Politico every morning,” said Ronnie Cho, who served as associate director of public engagement for the White House until last month. Plus, the measure of success is different this time. The ads are not intended to be political, he said, and awareness more than politicking and persuasion is the objective.

Funny or Die, a humor website with 19 million unique monthly visitors, lent a hand with a series of promos. “If we can help make [signing up for Obamacare] a normal thing, something that isn’t politicized, something that comes as second nature to younger people like putting your seat belt on, that is something we’d want to do,” Funny or Die’s president, Mike Farah, told Mother Jones after the meeting.

Cho, who previously worked at The Daily Beast as community editor, dismissed any notion that the July gathering was of particular significance, saying the administration has hosted a stream of strategic conversations about implementing Obamacare, with attendees varying from youth groups to CVS pharmacy. All are vital to getting the word out about implementation to as broad an audience as possible, he said.

But conservative lobbyists have been airing anti-ACA ads for months, including a particularly controversial spot featuring Uncle Sam peering between a woman’s legs in the doctor’s office—and they’re doing fairly well with viewers. According to data provided by Ace Metrix, of the nine health-care-related ads aired this year, the Democratic National Committee’s “Impact of Obamacare” scored lowest, while the three highest scoring came from groups across the aisle.

That’s no deterrent to the administration, said Cho. “My estimation is that, look, these guys are going to come after the president if he does something or doesn’t,” he said. The White House “is not using celebrities to change anyone’s mind. It’s more about education and using every asset they have.”

Whether the new ad ratings soar or crash, one matrix that isn’t measured is potential shareability in an age where a little virality can go a long way. Especially with the secret weapon Obama has on his side—one who happens to be the only celebrity not viewed as polarizing and ineffective by audiences. “Oprah does seem to have this magical touch,” Symonds said. She “is literally the only exception to that rule.”

As of Monday night, less than 24 hours after Funny or Die released Hudson’s pro-ACA ad, at least 62,000 people had viewed the video. The conservatives might want to start dialing Clint Eastwood right about now.