Honest Campaign

Obamacare’s Marketing to Millennials Has Been a Disaster. Here’s How to Fix It.

The White House says the troubled HealthCare.gov has been fixed—but what about the marketing campaign that’s causing the Obamacare death spiral? First you have to motivate millennials.

So what’s the biggest problem with Obamacare right now?

The botched website?

If only.

According to Obama administration officials, that has mostly been fixed.

The more worrying issue threatening the Affordable Care Act is the marketing of the new legislation to those most crucial to the plan’s viability—the young and healthy, or as the health-care industry refers to them, the “young invincibles.”

So far, the advertising that’s targeting the under-35 market has been abysmal.

In a desperate attempt to connect with the young audience, liberal message-makers unapologetically use sex, alcohol, and corny jokes to sell the program.

The results have been embarrassing, even offensive.

Some ads developed by two nonprofit groups in Colorado were so bad that Business Insider described them as “making the internet cringe.”

Not surprisingly, while millions of dollars have been spent to attract the elusive millennial demographic, the response from young invincibles has been less than enthusiastic.

According to recent data collected by CNN, as of last week, 21 percent of the total Obamacare enrollees were between 18 and 35. Analysts say the plan needs almost double that number to offset the health-care costs of older Americans and avoid a health care “death spiral”—a prohibitive increase in premiums that could lead to the law’s demise.

As with Obamacare’s dysfunctional website, the most pressing question now about the marketing of the plan to young people is how to fix it.

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A good place to start is to focus on selling what this audience has most to gain from Obamacare—the satisfaction of being a member of a society who believes universal access to health care is a fundamental human right and knowing that their enrollment in the plan enables the old and infirm to enroll affordably, too.

After all, many of these young folks are the same people who responded so positively to the civically minded message—“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”—of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Obama’s success at turning out the youth vote in 2008 even triggered the advertising trade journal Ad Age’s piece “What Obama Can Teach You About Millennial Marketing,” written for the benefit of consumer advertisers.

In spite of being known as the Me, Me, Me Generation, millennials are extremely responsive to social causes. Obama tapped into that in his first presidential run, but it seems to be lost on him now.

Of the thousands of scholarly articles written on marketing to millennials and the millions of web entries devoted to the topic, many explore how 18- 35-year-olds are highly motivated to seek out brands that support a cause—socially minded companies that have come to be known as “idea brands.”

As MillennialMarketing.com, a website devoted to decoding millennial consumer habits and marketing trends, explains, millennials are “socially savvy consumers.” Idea brands such as Toms Shoes and Warby Parker prescription eyewear, whose business models include a strong philanthropic focus, appeal to them because “they invite participation…offer social value and align to a higher purpose.”

Right now, the yearning among young people to be a part of something bigger than themselves is so profound that crowd-funding—collaborative online fundraising, largely composed of donors aged 24-35 —raised $2.7 billion across the globe in 2012 and is projected to grow to $5.1 billion in 2013.

Perhaps not coincidentally, one crowd-funding nonprofit in particular, Watsi, has been receiving a lot of attention lately. Founded last year by a 26-year-old ex-Peace Corps volunteer, the global platform allows online donors to fund medical treatment for people in developing countries without access to affordable health care.

Clearly, millennials are not averse to supporting a cause. Indeed, we know they’re continually seeking alignment with a higher purpose. Of all people, Obama and his (usually adroit) message-makers should have had that in mind as they thought about marketing his most socially ambitious legislative initiative.

If they had run a more honest campaign, young Americans would be wearing their enrollment in the plan like a badge of honor, celebrating the idea that their being part of the risk pool reduces insurance premiums for the older and less fit members of the population.

The ads could have been fairly straightforward and much more dignified than those currently in circulation. In case you’re curious, I’ve included a rough layout of what one might look like.