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.
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.

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

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