Hollywood’s role in promoting enrollment in the Affordable Care Act was on display in the final hours before a deadline for coverage this year, as John Legend, Jared Leto and Kerry Washington were among a wave of figures tweeting a link to Healthcare.gov and a top administration official once again defended President Obama’s turn to pop culture to spread the word.
Monday was the last day of open enrollment, with more website problems reported due to a software bug and to a surge in traffic. Nevertheless, a scramble for signups had been expected, and the site reported record volume.
As the enrollment date approached on Oct. 1, the White House sought to tap into pop culture, drawing on Obama’s base of entertainment industry supporters to send out tweets and other types of social media messaging, for YouTube stars to promote signups, and for administration officials to appear on shows popular with an online audience. Last July, celebrities like Jennifer Hudson and Amy Poehler, along with managers, producers and writers, met at the White House to plot out a communications strategy through entertainment. The effort has been coordinated by the White House’s Entertainment Advisory Council, which is chaired by producer-manager Eric Ortner, songwriter Bruce Roberts and actor Kal Penn.
The target in the effort has been to reach young, healthy enrollees to register, enough to establish a balanced risk pool to keep costs low.
Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, for instance, appeared on Pop Sugar last week to talk about the enrollment deadline and, when asked, about her opinions of Netflix’s “House of Cards.”
“It’s one of my favorite shows,” she said, adding, assuredly, “Washington isn’t like that though.”
Vice President Joseph Biden on Monday appeared on “The Rachael Ray Show,” where he urged signups and, among other things, talked of the skin care advice he gets from his wife.
Obama himself has appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and ESPN. But perhaps no guest stint drew greater attention than an interview with Zach Galifianakis’ Funny or Die series “Between Two Ferns,” a satirical webseries that routinely draws web hits in the multiple millions. The Obama interview, in which the president appeared to be miffed at the host’s inane questions, drew more than 20 million views.
In an appearance on HuffPost Live on Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said there was a “Galifianakis bump,” and defended the appearance even though critics have questioned whether it was not in keeping with the dignity of the presidency.
“The website traffic surged once the ‘Between Two Ferns’ interview went on,” Sebelius said. “But more importantly, what we tried to do was reach people in the language that they must understand. Certainly Zach reaches a certain audience. We’ve had Lebron James talking to sports fans during March Madness and Kevin Durant and others echoing that. We’ve had moms reaching out to their peers… We’re just trying to meet people where they are and give them real life examples and in some cases, make them laugh.”
Other celebrities sending out tweets included Sarah Silverman, Elizabeth Banks Zach Braff and Questlove Jenkins. Kal Penn wrote, “If you like your gonorrhea, you can keep your gonorrhea! Or get health insurance. Or live with gonorrhea. #getcovered. healthcare.gov.”
Tuesday update: Ortner, who is chairman of the Entertainment Advisory Council, said that “we weren’t lying when we said we had a plan. We said that it was all about March and the final weeks before the deadline.”
He said that their strategy is tapping into pop culture was to “use both a scapel and a spear,” drawing on the broad reach of entertainment, but also microtargeting the messaging to reach specific constituencies. But the nature of the messaging also changed from last fall to this month.
“It matured from an awareness campaign to ‘Here are the specifics. Here’s why you need this,'” he said. Celebrity surrogates were also told to create their own messaging, rather than rely on the script, in an effort to try to be “authentic.” The idea was to establish a level of trust about information being delivered.
Expect more analytics in the coming weeks on the effectiveness of using nontraditional media, digging deeper on whether Zach Galifianakis really saved Obamacare. But for now, it is likely to convince the White House that its strategy of tapping into the pop culture worked.