What the Brosurance and Creepy Uncle Sam Ads Don't Get About Millennials

Obamacare's biggest fans and staunchest enemies are desperately trying to get their message to young folks—and boy are they failing.
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One of the many controversial ads for the Affordable Care Act that target Millennials (ProgressNow Colorado)

There’s a term that those in the health-care conversation use to describe my age group. Ordinarily, we’re known as Millennials, Generation Y, or just plain “young people”—it depends which magazines you read—but in health care-speak, we’re “Invincibles.” Why? Because for most of us, the insurance premiums we pay far outweigh the cost of whatever treatment we need. Our dollars, which offset the cost of taking care of older and more infirm individuals, are essential to running a health-insurance system. We’re the ideal insurance customers, a gaggle of golden geese.

Because of that, something rare has happened: As the Affordable Care Act sputters to life, Millennials, under-addressed and criminally under-represented in Washington, D.C., are now in the center of the arena. Because they are “invincible”—and because the embattled ACA needs every enrollee it can get—Millennials find themselves in a rare make-or-break position: the most critical age group in determining the success or failure of the government’s hottest-button program.

It still remains to be seen how young people will react. Even with all the troubles Obamacare has had, previous cases show that paltry early enrollment is nothing new, and, at the moment, we are most certainly “in play.” Obamacare advocates and detractors on state and national levels have sought out, in particular, that under-26 group still peeking from behind the curtain of their parents’ health care, and are engaged in an advertising tug-of-war for their allegiances.

There’s a little bit of irony in this that would be delicious if it weren’t so deadly serious. A system hinges on support from a demographic not exactly served by that system, and what’s emerged over the course of the debate is the revelation that political groups and figures, perhaps because of the scarcity with which they have to address Millennials, don’t seem to know how to reach them without being patronizing or creepy.

The most recent example comes out of Colorado, where in the last few weeks, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado launched a series of ads as part of campaign entitled “Got Insurance?” The ads—pro-enrollment—featuring young people, are clearly intended to be “fresh” or “edgy” and are accompanied by exclamation point-heavy taglines. In one, two apparent frat guys hold up red Solo cups and the legs of a red-faced friend doing a kegstand (“Brosurance”). In another, a young woman stands, smiling, in front of a cardboard cutout of Ryan Gosling (“Hey Girl,” obviously). The most controversial of the bunch features a young woman with her arm around a guy and the caption “OMG, he’s hot! Let’s hope he’s as easy to get as this birth control.”

The ensuing outrage has been predictable. Alan Franklin, ProgressNow’s political director, says stoking “a degree of controversy” was part of the campaign’s goals from the start. “Without a little edginess,” he wrote in an email, “we would not have come anywhere near the tremendously wide viral distribution these ads have enjoyed.”

Controversy and edginess have also been the goals of another organization, the Koch Brothers-backed Generation Opportunity, which launched a six-figure campaign aimed at getting young people to opt out of Obamacare. Part of their campaign is an advertisement, released in September, that has come to sort of represent the pitched and nasty battle for Invincibles. It’s called “Creepy Uncle Sam,” and you’ve probably seen it: A young woman enters an examination room for a gynecological exam only to have the doctor leave, replaced by a giant, grinning Uncle Sam mascot who brandishes a speculum at the camera ominously. It’s really and truly creepy. When the ad came out in late September, Evan Feinberg, the president of Generation Opportunity, said it was a “creative way” to reach young people. Like the Brosurance ads, it has gone viral.

But how useful are these clicks? Do they come from people genuinely intrigued, motivated by the ad to seriously consider their health care options? Or are they outrage-driven distractions?

“I think it’s important to be straightforward with young people and not try some slick marketing campaign,” says Aaron Smith, the co-founder of Young Invincibles, a health-care advocacy and education group for Millennials. “We have to focus on what [health care] really does. The presentation needs to be as straightforward as possible.”

The problem with these campaigns—with all the Invincible-targeted ads in the Obamacare muddle, actually—is twofold. First, they don’t inform all that much. There’s a lot of hot air and fearmongering and noise. Second, there’s very little respect for the intended audience. The first problem exists because the second does. As opposed to seeing young people as the “smart, rational, economic decision-makers” they are (Smith’s words), it seems like political groups have based their conception of Millennials upon repeated viewings of American Pie. In an email to the Tampa Bay Times that has to be read and re-read to be believed, Generation Opportunity’s communications director, David Pasch, described a tailgate the organization sponsored at the University of Miami last Saturday:

We rolled in with a fleet of Hummers, F-150’s and Suburbans, each vehicle equipped with an 8’ high balloon bouquet .... We hired a popular student DJ from UMiami (DJ Joey), set up OptOut cornhole sets, beer pong tables, bought 75 pizzas, and hired 8 ‘brand ambassadors’ aka models with bullhorns to help out.

The most disturbing detail isn’t DJ Joey, or the Hummers (although, who still drives a Hummer in 2013?) but the “brand ambassadors,” because it miscasts health care as a branded product as opposed to what it really is: an essential service. In seeking to sway Invincibles, political groups are using distraction tactics that are far more suited to pushing Miller Lite and Xboxes. “Health care is not an iPad,” says Aaron Smith. “It’s not a pair of jeans. You can’t sell health care like a fad or a product.”

But for most of the brands, successful product-based advertising seems not just to be the underlying attitude for their campaigns, but their blueprints as well. From a creative standpoint, it’s the most depressing thing—and this really speaks to how out-of-touch political groups are, Millennial-wise—is that nearly all of the ads seem to be ripoffs or ham-handed spoofs of advertising content that was successful in engaging young people. The tone and design of ProgressNow Colorado’s “Got Insurance?” ad campaign will be familiar if you’ve ever seen ads featuring famous people with milk mustaches. One of the newer RNC ad campaigns, which will run on Comedy Central’s YouTube page, seems to have been lifted wholesale from Apple’s "Mac vs. PC" ads, with Obamacare personified by a hapless and disheveled actor who plays the PC role perfectly.

Not all of the ACA-related content is carbon copy. But at the very least, there’s a lot of grasping effort to tap into some popular vein and leech off it. The most subtly, and horrifically cheesy of these cultural mimicries appears on a Generation Opportunity sister website where much of the text, I kid you not, appears to be in the “Angry Birds” font. Gross.

It’s too early to say whether Invincibles will sign up to support Obamacare. The success or failure of the system is in their hands, and there’s enough conflicting information to give both sides conniptions. If you’re a Millennial, expect to be bombarded with more infuriatingly condescending advertisements before the March 31 enrollment deadline, and if you’re at the right college this semester, look out for more Generation Opportunity tailgates. Because, if you’re going to be patronized, you might as well get some free pizza out of it.

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Alex Edelman is a comedian and writer based in New York.

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