Hard Sell

Pajamaboy, Call Your Boss

Is this some wonk’s idea of a millennial? No one’s buying the awful new health insurance ads. Why Obama himself should be making a—yes—more idealistic pitch to the younger generation.

All right, conservatives, here we are. I’ve found that I agree with conservatives once a year about something.

We cut it close this year, this being the 356th day of 2013, but just under the wire, we made it: That “Pajamaboy” ad for Healthcare.gov is indeed terrible, and I’m afraid that it does say something about liberalism and liberals that someone, or several someones, at Organizing for America thought this ad would be in any way effective.

Of course I don’t agree at all with the psycho gay-baiting of the poor guy in the ad (and some of his defenders in the liberal commentariat) that’s emanated from a few voices on the right. I feel badly for the young man, who works at OFA and just decided to let it use his image (probably not knowing that when you assent to having your image become “stock art,” you’ve started asking for blowback like he received, and the law is on their side, not yours). The right just can’t help itself. Still. My side is going to have to do a hell of a lot better than this.

There are many ads out there trying to encourage people to enroll, aimed at young people, families, and so forth. You can find a little sampling here of display ads running in Colorado. They aren’t uniformly terrible. But they aren’t uniformly good. Here’s one. Two twentysomething white guys, one holding a golf bag, the other in mid-backswing (he’s not, by the way, wearing golf shoes, but I don’t know, maybe young guys do that; I don’t). The headline says “Club Med,” and the ad copy below reads: “‘Yo, Mom, do I got insurance?’ My girlfriend broke my heart, so me and the bros went golfing. Then my buddy broke my head. Good thing Mom made sure I got insurance.” Club Med, get it? I didn’t. For a long time.

Two responses. First, if you’re trying to reach these so-called Young Invincibles who think they don’t need insurance, with what kinds of people do you reach them? Simple: People more invincible than they are. So, how about an athletic white guy holding his snowboard? A strong-looking Latina woman cradling a soccer ball? A strapping young black male gripping a basketball—no; not a basketball, liberalism, a goddamn football! Et cetera. And a headline with something like: “Yeah, I’m healthy. But I bought insurance anyway.”

That would’ve made the 27-year-old me look twice. Huh, if these people are buying insurance, I guess maybe I should actually think about it. Our poor Pajamaboy and these duffers would only have me reject the whole idea instantly and aggressively.

Second: If you look through these ads, they generally follow the same basic template as Club Med. Something happened to me, and boy I’m glad I had insurance. In other words, they’re wholly practical and elemental. They’re entirely about me me me.

I guess I understand this. But that wouldn’t have sold me when I was young. I never thought anything bad was going to happen to me. And sure enough, nothing ever did, medically, although Lord knows I dared and taunted the fates to snare me in their nets on a weekly basis. So I don’t think young people are going to be persuaded by that.

What might persuade them? Well, maybe this is Pollyannaish of me, but I think that if you explain to young people that they are becoming part of something bigger, enough of them are just idealistic enough to buy in, as long as the price is right (and it is, generally—bare-bones individual plans for people who don’t plan on seeing a doctor are often around $70 or $80 a month). So the copy under the headlines accompanying the photos of my snowboarder and soccer woman and football man would go something like: “I don’t expect anything to happen to me. But one, you never know. And two, it’s actually pretty cheap. And three, when enough young people like me buy insurance, we’re making it more affordable for our parents and grandparents, and other sick people who do need care. It’s the right call.”

See what my proposed ad copy does? It makes connections so that young people with half a brain might actually have a thought: “Oh, I see, this isn’t just about me; it’s about my parents and grandparents too, and maybe even about the whole country.” Is it really too much to ask, to try to prod young people to connect a couple of dots? We can’t even ask people to consider behaving in a civic fashion anymore?

Now that I think about it, this ought to come from President Obama himself. He ought to give a speech or a few speeches on campuses aimed specifically at young people and say, “I know a lot of you were excited about me in 2008, and the polls tell me you think I’ve been disappointing, and that’s how things go in Washington. It’s a brutal place. But this is your generation’s chance to help your country become the last advanced democratic country in the world to make sure that all of its citizens have the peace of mind of health care.” It’s their Peace Corps and Vista.

Yeah, lots of people will make fun of that, too. But it’s actually kind of true. And I think it packs a hell of a lot more punch than Pajamaboy’s message about drinking hot chocolate or the Club Med duo’s “my shankopotamus buddy pinged me with an errant Titleist and I had to go to the ER.”