Celebrities might not help health care promotion, experts say

By Francesca Bacardi -- Medill News Service   |   July 29, 2013 at 6:59 PM   |   0 comments

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WASHINGTON, July 29 -- President Barack Obama enlisted several celebrities to help promote his new healthcare plan to young consumers, but marketing experts say it might not work.

“The trick is in finding the celebrity who is truly into this topic,” Aba Kwawu, president of The Aba Agency, a marketing firm in Washington. “I need to know they understand this and they’re not just receiving a paycheck for a PSA.”

The health care celebrity endorsers include Jennifer Hudson, Kal Penn and Amy Poehler, according to a White House official.

The White House was not available for immediate comment regarding why these celebrities were chosen.

When it comes to having a celebrity representative for a cause such as health care, Kwawu said it is important to choose someone who is trustworthy and very knowledgeable. A representative for Oprah Winfrey was also present at the White House meeting. Winfrey frequently advocates for child abuse victims.

“Oprah is a force in the community,” Kwawu said. “She comes across as someone who knows what’s going on.”

But those who don’t have Winfrey’s influence will not be as effective.

“It’s not enough to just be a beautiful celebrity to come and get behind this cause,” Kwawu said. “If the person is choosing very carefully and someone resonates in various communities, I do think it could go a long way in educating the public and getting the word across.”

Penn, who was associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement in 2010, was a co-chair of the re-election campaign for the president.

Health insurance enrollment has been declining since 2010, according to a Gallup poll. Approximately 24 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds are uninsured, compared with 28 percent in the third quarter of 2010. With health care marketplaces opening in a few months, the administration wants to persuade young consumers to purchase insurance.

“The next few months leading up to the opening of these marketplaces are a critical time for youth engagement and outreach efforts,” a White House official said in a statement. “The reach of these national stars spreads beyond the beltway to fans of their television shows, movies, and music – and the power of these artists to speak through social media is especially critical.”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., disagrees. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton recently criticized the president’s decision to turn to Hollywood for more publicity in a blog post.

“The administration is turning to folks who will never have to worry about the looming rate shock and asking them to convince younger Americans to deal with the costs,” Upton said in the blog post. “Folks in middle America deserve better.”

A committee representative added that with such an expensive marketing campaign, some young Americans will be persuaded, but at a cost.

“Disingenuous as it may be, it's not surprising that the administration is turning to its Hollywood allies,” the representative said. “With nearly $700 million to sell the health care law, we can expect that there will be some young Americans who are convinced by the administration, but eventually they will all feel the burden of the looming rate shock and no amount of celebrity can alleviate that cost.”

Young consumers who do not necessarily keep up with news might be more easily informed by celebrities according to Brandi Dunnegan, president of marketing and public relations at The Boutique Agency in Washington.

“Not everyone reads The Washington Post daily, but they will pay attention to their Twitter feed or Instagram when Alicia Keys updates a new photo or when she is heard in a radio interview speaking on the topic,” Dunnegan said in an email.

President of youth advocacy group Our Time Matt Segal said that politicians are smart to use celebrities because they have millions of followers and Facebook fans while traditional news media are losing steam with younger people.

“What politicians and political operations are being smarter about doing is leveraging celebrities for their distribution,” Segal said. “That’s why I think you see political campaigns always very eager to use celebrities for their political messages.”

Dunnegan said that it’s ultimately up to the administration to clarify the confusion that has been reported by many with the impending health care changes.

“A celebrity endorsement alone does not necessarily mean American's will change their mind,” she said. “It is still up to the administration to simplify the message in a relevant manner and use the celebrities’ voices as medium to help pitch it.”

Segal added that celebrity endorsements wouldn’t necessarily persuade a young person to get insurance.

“I think [young consumers] are going to go out and learn about it,” Segal said. “I don’t think one endorsement ultimately seals the deal.”
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