Death Panels & Town Halls
When was it?
In August of 2009, with Sarah Palin twittering about “Death Panels” and town hall meetings overrun by angry teabaggers up in arms (literally) about a supposed “government takeover of healthcare,” the Obama administration officially lost control of the healthcare debate. Agit-Pop responded with a white paper outlining how creative action could help reframe the debate and shift momentum back towards reform.
What was it?
“Change the story,” we counseled. “Use street theater and pranks to flip the script on the teabaggers and scramble their message.” “Re-locate the stage of conflict from town halls to insurance industry HQs by bringing the fight directly to them.” “Create a new central conflict in which an aroused populous takes on the companies profiting off our broken health care system.” Major players including MoveOn and HCAN took us up on our ideas and we got to work. Over the next few months we delivered a flurry of impactful on- and off-line interventions.
How was it?
We re-invented the Billionaire meme as “Billionaires for Wealthcare,” brought it under the Agit-Pop umbrella and — to much media acclaim — showed up at teabagger events to “thank” them for protecting our profits. We took the story of Dawn Smith — a MoveOn member from Atlanta with two brain tumors who’d been repeatedly denied treatment by her insurer Cigna — to a national audience as she traveled to the Cigna HQ in Philadelphia for a showdown with their CEO. We helped push the Public Option over the top and into Reid’s Senate bill (ah, the heady days of November ’09) with our “Public Option Annie” prank, a guerrilla musical performed during the closing keynote of the AHIP insurance industry conference. It lit up the blogosphere, charmed Rachel Maddow and Wolf Blitzer, and blew out John Stuart’s eardrums.
We also wrote and pitched a TV spot to specifically make the case for the Public Option.
In August ’09, the Public Option was being demonized as the leading edge of a “government takeover of healthcare;” opponents were disingenuously claiming it was “unfair competition” and would drive private insurers out of business. In truth, the Public Option was just that, an option that would exist right alongside private plans. It would re-inject competition into a near-monopoly insurance market, and, in Obama’s own words “keep insurance companies honest,” not drive them out of business.
Our challenge: How to show (not tell) these core truths. We weren’t looking for more words, or a tit-for-tat argument; we wanted a powerful visual metaphor that would be intuitive and convincing.
The idea didn’t come all at once, but rather in stages. Our mental gears turned something like this: Dudes, we need a situation that normally includes competition— Right, but then remove the competition, and make it read as patently absurd. Exactly! A business? No, that’s too literal, too close to what we’re talking about… What about sports? Yeah, what could be more in the American vernacular than a sporting event. Baseball? Football? No, not a team sport, a sport with individual competition. How about a track meet? Right, right, with all the runners lazing around at the starting line with no motivation to compete. Nice! And then have the Public Option show up — with a whole different attitude — and force everyone to compete. Bing!
Befitting the playfulness of the core idea, we wanted the spot to have the look and feel of a whimsical commercial rather than the usual hard-nosed, fact-driven political ad. Rather than hitting the viewer over the head, we wanted the visual narrative of the ad to do the heavy lifting. The spot should have a voice over, sure, but the piece should almost work with the sound turned off.
We wanted the viewer to feel like they’d been dropped into a “world” — an absurd world, with runners in business suits and a sporting event with no competition — that would serve as a whimsical allegory for our broken, monopolistic health insurance system. The insurance execs (at least in this ad) are not “evil.” Instead they’re lazy, rife with bad habits, and ridiculously unable or unwilling to be better corporate citizens on their own — until, of course, the Public Option shows up and changes the game.
Eventually, the insurance companies re-discover their own competitive edge, and in the final shots of the spot (and this was very deliberate) nearly catch up to the Public Option.
We shopped the ad concept around to various reform groups. All of them were excited, and MoveOn jumped on it hard. While it took a while to line up our celebrity talent, once Heather Graham signed on to play the Public Option, and Peter Coyote to do the VO, production was swift and inspired. MoveOn contracted with New York-based Charged Productions and one beautiful October morning in Red Hook, Brooklyn, we shot the ad.
MoveOn pushed the 60 second version out to all 5 million of their members and did a six-figure TV buy with the 30 second version. The spot was soon up to half-a-million views on YouTube, lighting up the blogosphere and making national headlines. “Heather Graham Sprints for the Public Option,” said the New York Times. “The ad,” ran an ABC News story, “depicts Graham as the public option forcing out-of-shape insurance company executives to compete with her.” “Truly underscores the extent to which the public option discussion has [become] a national conversation,” declared the Huffington Post.
Most importantly, synapses were firing in people’s heads across the country, tellingly demonstrated by the back-and-forth dialog of these readers, excerpted from the comments sections of a couple of the hundreds of blog postings about the ad:
Why didn’t they put her out in front of the pack?
A public option should be a competitor that levels the playing field – not a competitor that beats the competition…
Go Rollergirl! But why is it so close?
It’s close because they don’t want it to look like the public option will put the others out of business.
Maybe to point out that the public option will get the other insurance companies to compete … and they catch up to her to imply that the insurance companies WILL be able to compete.
Unfortunately, as we all know, neither the cleverness of this ad nor the millions of person hours of ferocious advocacy by progressives across the country were quite enough to get the Public Option into the final health care bill. But just like the Option itself, the ad kept coming back. It was re-cut in February 2010 during a final push to force an up-or-down vote. And who knows, both might come back yet again — and this time win.