Hollywood Won’t Be a Bystander as Healthcare Debate Heats Up

Poehler, Hudson, Perry, Cera among celebs who’ve signed on to persuade youth that Obamacare can be a positive force

Obamacare Hollywood Peter Bart

A surprising number of people I encountered this week were angry about something — or about everything. Some of it was “Hollywood anger” — frustration about slow decisionmaking, rude agents, shrinking deals and all the other perversities built into industry dealmaking. With it all, TV shows still get made and movies produced, but with maximum angst and frustration.

But there’s also a broader level of anger out there in Hollywood and beyond — far beyond — that increasingly pervades the American conversation. It’s as evident in chatrooms as in Congress. Bill Maher made a valid point last week when he asked, “Has hate become the national pastime?”

This question merits attention because the nastiness is about to get more intense. A massive propaganda war is being unleashed on Obamacare — one that will involve Hollywood stars, Madison Avenue and the mavens of the Web as well as Washington. Billions of dollars will be spent and deep emotions revealed.

The demographic target of the campaign is that magic 18- to 35-year-old age cluster so prized by marketers, but here’s the conflict: The pro-Obamacare forces want to sign them up (as do insurance companies) and conservatives want to scare them off. The campaign is already ugly, with the first wave of anti-healthcare ads featuring a diabolically caricatured Uncle Sam — picture a Chucky doll on steroids — ostensibly performing gynecological procedures on a cute coed.

On the other side of the battle line, Amy Poehler, Jennifer Hudson, Katy Perry and Michael Cera are among the celebrities who’ve signed on to persuade the youth demo that Obamacare can be a positive force in their lives. Mike Farah’s Funny or Die studio and similar online entities also have been recruited. The insurance companies alone are allocating a billion dollars to advocate the advantages of signing up. TV channels as well as the Web will be awash in health care noise.

The young demo has to endorse the concept of health insurance or the economics of the system will collapse. Hence, as the campaign reaches fever pitch this fall, all of us will gain new insight into what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.”

Our national dialogue doesn’t needs further poisoning. Our chat rooms already are suffused with f-bombs, even over trivial issues. “The codes of civility seem to have been abandoned,” one TV production chief remarked to me last week as we navigated a crowded post-Emmy function.

Is Hollywood ready to play a major role in the propaganda war? The community is hardly immune from some of the health issues that are dogging America, even before Obamacare. Pharmacists are reporting fast-growing sales of antidepressants. Medical marijuana is a major growth industry. The calendars of shrinks are full.

But it’s conservatives who are feeling the heat. They have a narrow corridor of time in which to sell their message: Once people are enrolled and obtaining benefits, they will be nervous about surrendering them. Hence the campaign will shortly get up close and personal. The president last week addressed thousands of volunteers who will shortly take to the field, urging door-to-door support of the Obamacare doctrine.

Arrayed on the other side are groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Action Fund. They are counting not only on massive paid advertising but also on booking spokesmen on conservative radio and TV shows. Yet they cannot simply preach to the Fox News choir.

Young women are specially targeted in most of the commercials. “Your well-being (determined) by a bureaucrat in D.C. is devastating,” says one woman identified as a cancer survivor. “Obamacare cannot be implemented,” the ad concludes.

Since every other advanced nation has the equivalent of Obamacare, why is the issue so emotional in America? One reason is money; many young people are broke, and have been scared by letters warning them about rate increases and discouraging them from shopping in health exchanges, which are starting up in many states this week, mandated by the new law. Many also are worried about losing their freedom to choose doctors and hospitals.

But the biggest issue is about politics. Conservatives have decided to make Obamacare the most important political issue of the moment. It’s all about Obama, not about health. It’s going to be noisy, and Hollywood won’t shy away from the battle.