For Hollywood, the joke's on Obamacare
By: Tal Kopan
November 11, 2013 05:30 PM EST
Obamacare has gone from Hollywood leading lady to comic relief.
When the Obamacare exchanges launched last month, celebrities were out front, with everything from nearly-topless #GetCovered tweets from young actresses touting affordable care to “Funny or Die” videos going viral. But since then, amid mounting bad press on everything from the faulty website to the “you can keep it” controversy, Obamacare has become the punchline instead of the star.
Organizers of the celebrity push say they haven’t gone away, rather they’re still eager to help promote enrollment over the long haul.
The push to promote the Affordable Care Act with celebrities was designed to target the hardest to reach populations to get them to sign up. The “young invincibles,” healthy Americans who might not believe they have any need for health insurance, are seen as one of the key groups that Obamacare needs to reach in order to succeed, and celebs were one of the ways to do accomplish that.
Last week, country singers Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley mocked HealthCare.gov’s long wait times and early low enrollment figures in a skit during their hosting of the Country Music Awards, singing a duet including the lines “Obamacare by morning // Over six people served.”
Comedy Central’s animated show “South Park” skewered the roll out of the the site, with a recent episode in which the school unveils an integrated health care system for its students that doesn’t work. The school faculty member who pushed the system, Intellilink, even brings out a Kathleen Sebelius lookalike character in a meeting questioning the program’s failure, only to berate her, fire her and blame her for the system’s woes.
The website also has been a frequent target for late-night television. “Saturday Night Live” in late October opened a show with a parody of Sebelius talking about the website’s problems, saying that despite millions of interested consumers, “the site was only designed to handle six users at a time, so if you’re in a rush, consider using our low-res website.” The character clicks to reveal a low-quality page that features neon letters “U WANT DOCTR?” with yes and no buttons.
“It’s been a particularly negative past several weeks, so I think there is a concern that people aren’t going to find out the basic facts of what’s in it, because there’s so much attention lately to the problems with the website,” said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president at California Endowment, which has been promoting Obamacare.
The string of jokes stands in contrast with the crush of celebrities eager to encourage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act when the exchanges launched Oct. 1. Singer and actress Jennifer Hudson and actress Elizabeth Banks starred in viral videos on the website Funny or Die promoting the law. Dozens of celebrities tweeted with the #GetCovered hashtag, including “Vampire Diaries” Nina Dobrev posting a picture of herself topless with a cardboard #GetCovered sign across her chest.
The White House has been a behind-the-scenes player in the celebrity engagement. In July, the administration held a briefing hosted by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett with the Entertainment Advisory Council and artists and content creators, including Hudson, Kal Penn, Amy Poehler, Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and YouTube Comedy’s Daniel Kellison, all of whom the White House said reached out with interest in engaging young people to educate them about Obamacare.
While the celebrity outreach has been hailed as targeting the particularly important demographic of “invincibles,” the White House maintains that research shows young people are more likely to sign up just before a penalty would kick in, not in the beginning of the six-month enrollment period.
But since the initial push in the first few days of the Oct. 1 launch, many of the celebrities lined up by the administration and other organizations have fallen silent as the jokes and bad press have filled the void.
Jon Stewart skewered the Obama administration on his Comedy Central program, “The Daily Show,” with segments including “The Weakest Link” and “Affordable Horror Story.”
Talk show hosts have unleashed a series of cracks, with Jay Leno dedicating a chunk of a “Tonight Show” monologue to “Obamacrash — I mean Obamacare,” saying he doesn’t buy that the site’s glitches will be fixed in a few weeks. “When was the last time the government fixed anything in a few weeks? We still have troops in Korea,” he said.
TBS show host Conan O’Brien joked the administration was sending Americans having trouble with the website to a phone number, “1-800-we-didn’t-think-this-through,” the next night saying while approval of Obamacare has gone up, he couldn’t give the audience the exact figures because they were on the Obamacare website.
Even liberal comedian Bill Maher called the website a “dysfunctional mess” and a “big f—- up for liberals” on his HBO show.
Nevertheless, organizers of the celebrity promotional effort say nothing has changed: They always planned to push enrollment in waves, and they say the enthusiasm is still there to engage the critical group of young people to get covered.
The chairman of the White House’s Entertainment Advisory Council, Eric Ortner, said the plan was to come back in November after the initial activity around the launch, and the only change is that they now plan to make that wave an “open-for-business” theme.
“This was always intended to be a back-loaded campaign with multiple tiers,” Ortner said. “After the Republican government shutdown and the website malfunctions, we took that opportunity to stop the drive and refocus the next phase of the campaign that was geared to the young and healthy. We already have celebrities enlisted and brands enlisted to spread that message when the doors are opened.”
While there has been some frustration with the website issues, Ortner said, the heavy demand has also been encouraging.
“The frustration was that there wasn’t a mechanism to convert the demand that showed up on the front step, but the excitement was that we got them there and we got more people than we ever imagined,” Ortner told POLITICO. “Our job is to market to communities largely outside New York and L.A., but the irony is the state exchanges in California and New York are working so well that we’re energized to see how well the system can work when it does.”
Both Enroll America and Planned Parenthood, which have also coordinated outreach with celebrities, said they will be announcing further efforts set for early December, tied to the Dec. 15 deadline to enroll for coverage to begin Jan. 1.
“Sort of by design, we launched with a bang and then we’ll have key pushes leading into the 15th of December, of January, of February, sort of using the deadlines as an organizational and communications opportunity on the ground and online,” said Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Rachel Fleischer.
The organization helped coordinate social media efforts, recorded messages from actresses Scarlett Johansson, Aisha Tyler and Gabriel Union that play when people call Planned Parenthood centers, and organized an event in Los Angeles about the Affordable Care Act featuring Martha Plimpton. And Fleischer said more celebrities are still looking to engage with them.
“They’re waiting to hear from us in terms of the next big thing, in terms of, ‘How can I get involved. What else can I do?’ And we’ve certainly seen this deadline as the next big push,” she said.
California Endowment teamed up with Spanish-language stars and journalists to promote the law to Hispanic Californians, and it recently announced a $500,000 grant to provide information for television writers to portray Obamacare in their shows.
“Our hope is that some of the true-life stories that they’ll tell will cut through all the talking heads — or as I say in the case of Obamacare, all the fighting heads — where all they hear is the noise and the controversy,” said Zingale. “We’re hoping some of the story lines based on real life will help break through that noise.”
The grant will help set up workshops between TV writers and experts as well as real users of Obamacare to tell their stories — good and bad. The organization said if anything, problems with the website have made it more eager to move forward with this type of outreach, as the narrative in the media has become unfriendly toward the law.
Funny or Die also said it has a long-term plan for the outreach efforts.
“Funny or Die’s plan has always been to continue to release content to help educate young people about the Affordable Care Act. We have ongoing projects in development and are shooting two new videos this month to release them by the end of the year,” Funny or Die said in a statement to POLITICO. “We’ve always taken a long-term view on this law and its benefits and will continue to do so, especially if it means we can steal the White House’s recipe for egg nog for our holiday party. Have you tried that egg nog? Man, that’s some good egg nog.”