In Depth

Ongoing Health-Care Fight to Generate Another $500M in TV Advertising -- Aim Isn't to Repeal Act, But to Hammer Opponents

By Ana Radelat
Advertising Age

Midterm elections aren't until next year, but TV stations around the country are likely to see $500 million in politically themed advertising this year through early next year. The subject -- or target in most cases -- the Affordable Care Act.

Campaign Media Analysis Group, part of Kantar Media, found that $500 million was spent since 2009 on TV ads that mention the Affordable Care Act and another $500 million will be spent in the coming months.

That $1 billion spent on a single issue breaks previous records. And if the current trend holds, an overwhelming majority of those ads will attack Obamacare, as the ACA has become commonly known.

Elizabeth Wilner, VP of CMAG, said opponents of Obamacare have outspent its supporters by 5 to 1 when it comes to TV advertising.

She also said it took 40 years before ad spending related to Social Security and Medicare, programs that "were once reviled and eventually revered," reached the billion-dollar mark.

But just how much TV stations will gain from the ad blitz is difficult to tally. That's because the ACA ads will most likely take the place of many other so-called issue ads. In other words, politicians and PACs will use the subject to hammer opponents, letting other issues fall by the wayside.

Americans for Prosperity, a PAC backed by the Koch brothers, has already begun running a 30-second spot called "Questions" that features a young, pregnant woman and a small boy who she says is her son that suffers from seizures.

"If I can't pick our doctor, how do I know our family is going to get the care they need?" the woman asks. "Can I really trust the folks in Washington with my family's health care?"

Since a Democratic-controlled Senate has blocked nearly 40 House attempts to repeal the ACA and will continue to do so, the new anti-ACA ads aren't meant to put any pressure on individual members of this Congress. They are instead an early foray into next year's midterm elections.

The ACA will be one of five key "metrics" to watch that will determine the outcome of those elections, according to the Cook Political report.

And unlike the 2012 elections, Democrats will not stay mum on the ACA, said Jennifer Duffy, senior analyst for the Cook Political Report.

"Democrats will have no choice but to respond to GOP attacks on ACA this cycle," Ms. Duffy said. "No Democratic Senate incumbent who voted for health-care reform has said that they regret their vote, but several have questioned parts of it more recently. This suggests that Democrats know it will be a liability this cycle."

Opponents of the ACA will pounce on its every flaw and stumble.

The Obama administration may have suffered a self-inflicted wound with its announcement that it will postpone the employer mandate, or the ACA's requirement all businesses with 50 workers of more provide health-care coverage. Ms. Wilner of CMAG said the postponement may have avoided an outcry by businesses who hate the employer mandate during an election year. But she also said it arms Republicans, who immediately held congressional hearings on the postponement.

"It gives opponents a full year to criticize the employer mandate," she said.

There are other public-relations problems looming for the Obama administration. There have been increases in health-care premiums. A majority of states refused to up exchanges that allow individuals and small businesses to shop for health coverage, forcing the federal government to set them up by an Oct. 1 deadline. And states that have enthusiastically embraced the ACA, such as Connecticut, say they're having trouble setting them up.

Ms. Wilner said the ACA will be the subject of attack ads against Democrats in the House, and especially the Senate, which the GOP wants back under its control.

Anti-ACA campaigns will also run in the 30 races for governor next year, she said.

Supporters of the ACA will also run ads, just not as many.

Organizing for Action and Enroll America -- advocacy groups that support the Affordable Care Act -- have already begun nationwide advertising campaigns. Ms. Wilner said OFA has already spent $100,000 on cable ads. Reports pegged the amount being spent on AFP anti-ACA ads at $700,000.

Kantar also predicted a spike in insurance-company advertising aimed at luring new consumers.

The Obama administration, which has spent $50 million already promoting the ACA, is expected to continue its campaign.

States will also spend money advertising. California, for example, has an $86 million ad campaign aimed at enrolling eligible residents. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April found 42% of Americans surveyed didn't know Obamacare was still the law .

While it may be too early to tell how much English-language TV advertising will increase because of the ACA, the law is expected to be a boon for Spanish-language media.

The nation's Latinos are overrepresented among the ranks of the uninsured, so "the ACA gives politicians a chance to curry favor with a growing demographic and gives Spanish-language broadcasters the chance to make up some ground," a Kantar memo said.