My original intention was to write a column about the marketing of Obamacare to millennial youths (that’s “youtes” for you “Cousin Vinny” fans.)

Indeed, up until last week, it seemed to be the big story, since the economic well-being of the Affordable Health Care Act itself rests on enough young, healthy people signing up.

The theory is that this cadre of “Young Invincibles” in turn would subsidize the cost of insuring the mass of older, sicker Americans. (Should we call them “Vanquished Elders?”  Or just “frequent users”?)

And my point was that the advertising until then was pretty underwhelming and confusing. Moreover, I thought these 20somethings were less “invincible” than “impermeable”: without  a way to earn money at all, or if they were barely getting by, they weren’t going to pony up their hard-earned pay for any insurance program, period.

Forget the attempts to get down and get cool with faux music videos, or even scare them into signing up with snowboarding stunts gone awry. And yes, they’d take your brightly colored beer cozies and laugh in your direction.

Then again, one difference with the kids of this generation is that they listen to their parents a lot more than Baby Boomers or Gen X–ers did; unfortunately, some have lived through the tough times of their parents’ layoffs, loss of benefits, and/or illness-related bankruptcies. That’s gotta be a more powerful experience than watching a Funny or Die video.

In a unique case like this, I thought the best advertising would be the product itself. Once enough Millennials had signed up, and tweeted, Tumblred, or made Vine videos about their own experiences, they’d influence their peers, who’d sign up, and so on.

Then along came the shutdown, and the opening of the online insurance exchanges on Oct. 1, and all hell broke loose.

I’ve never experienced such a pre-apocalyptic feeling. With a constitutional crisis, and possible economic Armageddon looming, we’ve experienced what amounts to a rolling coup against the Obama administration from House Republicans of the extreme ideologue kind. They’ve been called apostates, anarchists, and nihilists. Indeed, there’s a willingness to weaponize the shutdown — regardless of collateral damage — that has never made people on both sides angrier or more frustrated. Also frightened.

Meanwhile, even sadder, whatever side you are on, we can all pretty much agree that the online insurance exchange itself is one of the worst examples of a new product launch ever. The administration had two years to develop a system, and the result up until now is a slow, embarrassingly glitchy site. No amount of advertising in the world will help sell Affordable Care if people can’t sign up.

Meanwhile, even before the failings of the site became clear, the GOP anti-funders,  backed in part by the Koch Bros, had its game on. Attacks were strategically planned and well executed, starting during the summer. Lines like “Obamacare is a trainwreck” came out of their playbook, and Speaker Boehner repeated it endlessly to great effect.

What’s clear is that the campaign to make Obamacare seem abominable is much better than the one actually trying to sell it. What gives? This came from the same guy who masterminded such an extraordinary, forward-thinking social media and ground game as a candidate in 2008 that he not only came from obscurity to be elected president ,but was also named “Marketer of the Year”  by the ANA. As such, Obama edged out other brands like Apple ,, and Nike, global giants who know a thing or two about marketing.

For the sake of the country, I hope the site is heavily, and quickly, upgraded. Maybe the administration folks can call in a batch of unemployed Millennials to help improve the architecture and programming. If that job doesn’t come with benefits, they’d be prime targets for some fresh thinking about advertising, too.


by Barbara Lippert | Oct. 9, 2013

MediaPost Editor-At-Large Barbara Lippert covers the intersection of pop culture, advertising, and marketing. Lippert was for many years the award-winning author of the Adweek Critique, and speaks and appears on TV as an expert on advertising imagery.