Showbiz lessons for ailing health care biz

ObamaCare could use some marketing muscle

The hottest ticket last week was not to “The Hunger Games” but rather to the Supreme Court’s arcane deliberations on ObamaCare. Arguably the subtext of both shows dealt with life and death.

In search of a common slanguage

Comparisons are absurd, to be sure, but a case could be made that the foibles of the movie business can shed light on the issues of health care. Consider the following:

The escalating numbers of both industries suggest a fantasy world. “The Godfather” cost under $7 million to produce 40 years ago, but today a remake would cost $150 million comprising the same basic components: cameras and actors. Similarly, almost every medical procedure today costs exponentially more than it did a decade ago without causal explanation.

Have either the movies or the medical procedures improved commensurate to cost? “Hospital bills read like studio bills so only movie folks can decode them,” observes Jonathan Dolgen, who has run two Hollywood studios.

Movie marketers can commit massive blunders in pre-selling tentpoles like “John Carter,” but their tactics seem brilliant compared with the marketing of ObamaCare. Health care proponents kept stumbling into the issue of “mandates” even though the overwhelming majority of Americans want coverage (50 million have no insurance). Some 85% of older folks favor expanded coverage for pre-existing conditions but call ObamaCare “socialism” (there’s no similar outrage about mandated automobile insurance).

Movie distributors have learned about the uses and misuses of tracking studies. Did ObamaCare advocates ever try to figure out who their allies would be and how to capitalize on them? In Massachusetts some 63% of the population supports that state’s version of ObamaCare, complete with its dreaded “mandates” (it was originally RomneyCare, of course, since the then-governor proposed it) and few pay the penalties for non-insurance.

Movie folks following the Supreme Court hearings quickly adapted to the scripted tone of the deliberations, however. The conservative justices faithfully said exactly what everyone knew they would say and the liberals pursued their dogma. Like good actors, they did their best to cloak their political positions in legalistic rhetoric.

Movie people know a bad script when they see it.

The media keeps pounding Wall Street because of the nasty code words that bankers employ in describing customers. We now know that Goldman Sachs officials derided naive customers as “Muppets.” And one banker admitted he described clients as “marks” or “pawns” because they actually followed his advice.

While Wall Street operators are clearly guilty of arrogance, almost every industry has its own private code, which often reflects vague contempt for clients or customers. I’ve heard talent agents put down actors as “bobbleheads” if they always accept the deals presented to them. At advertising agencies, junior employees who show no promise of advancement are labeled “duffel bags.” Even in prison, inmates who display compulsive compliance are labeled “cheese eaters.”

It may not be appropriate to report this in the pages of Variety, on the other hand, because this newspaper over the years created its own private lexicon of put-downs. It even presented its “Hollywood dictionary” in an elegant little book edited by Timothy M. Gray, the editor-in-chief.

Variety’s lexicon many years ago labeled publicists as “flacks,” talent agents as “tenpercenters” and dancers as “hoofers.” Movie genres drew labels as well: Westerns became “oaters” and a hit martial arts movie was a “socko chopsocky.”

In the pages of Variety, a talkshow host is simply a “yakker” while the entire class of commentators on the entertainment scene are “crix.” Indeed, the youth culture was reinvented as the “zitgeist.”

Oddly, while these expressions gained wide acceptance, the one Variety label that was most feared appeared in stories about weddings or in obits. It was “nonpro.”

No one in Hollywood ever wanted to be called a “nonpro.”

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