Is there any battle in contemporary politics being waged with more indignity and less prowess than the tug-of-war for twentysomethings over Obamacare?
With the success of the Affordable Care Act hinging on the ability of the health care exchanges to attract a critical mass of young, healthy people, America's youth find themselves in the crossfire of a high-stakes, comically ill-fought partisan fight for their hearts and minds.
On one side, amateur models dressed in outdated frat boy costumes pose doing keg stands as they urge their peers to sign up for "brosurance." On the other, a strangely proportioned, nightmarish Uncle Sam sneaks into doctor's offices wielding a speculum and threatens something resembling sexual assault as the TV screen fills with dire warnings about letting the government play doctor.
The pandering has become an amusing subplot in the Obamacare wars, and a frequent target of mockery on the internet, but it's symptomatic of a broader problem that afflicts the "youth outreach" efforts that so often come out of D.C. Namely, the ambitious twentysomethings best positioned to extract cash from gullible political donors on the promise that they are "down with the kids" are, in fact, not. Often, when these Great Young Hopes of the political class realize they don't know how to connect with their generational peers, they resort to dubious social media metrics and hazy claims of "being in the conversation" as proof of success. And so political donors, PACs, and partisan operatives of a certain age keep chasing the ever-elusive youth vote with marketing stunts that the Brooks Brothers-clad young strivers who concoct them promise will "go viral."
In the Obamacare marketing war for "millennials," as the marketers know them, "virality" has become an end unto itself.
Take, for example, the "Got Insurance?" campaign launched in October by the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. Tasked with raising awareness among the 18–35 demographic, the nonprofit set about making a series of ads designed, ostensibly, to resonate with young, single people. But the final product was ham-handed and cartoonish, featuring bros in Bermuda shorts saying things like, "Yo mom, do I got insurance?" and young women, mouths agape, exclaiming, "OMG, he's hot! Let's hope he's as easy to get as this birth control."
When the ads first began circulating on Twitter, many assumed they were conservative parodies. Once it was confirmed that, no, this was an actual attempt to advertise Obamacare to young people, the campaign was subjected to a ruthless round of bipartisan ridicule — all to the delight of the team behind it.
"We've gotten a lot of feedback, but based on what we've seen on social media, it has reached that target age bracket," said Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, who graduated college in 2007. "We see these ads as really a starting point to get people talking about the reasons they should have insurance."
But if the brosurance boys succeeded in generating Twitter chatter — much of it derisive — it's unclear how many actual young people they caused to sign up for insurance.
The same goes for the Obamacare-themed "Drop It Like It's Hot" parody video produced by California's health care exchange and posted to YouTube last week. The video stars a presidential impersonator dancing to the track of Snoop Lion's 2004 hit single, and rapping cringe-worthy lyrics like this: "I'm commander-in-chief, and I'm two terms strong / Plus I've got this health care, which has got it going on!"
The offering elicited eye rolls from some corners of the web and enthusiasm from others, but the video has failed so far to really take off — attracting a respectable but hardly record-breaking 229,863 views on YouTube as of this writing. Still, the video was irresistible fodder for the bored political blogosphere, and managed to create an illusion of virality with an onslaught of favorable posts, including one from — ahem — BuzzFeed.
"One of the key reasons we're doing this campaign is that those under 30 live and breathe social media — they live Twitter, they live Facebook," Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the group behind the video, told the Los Angeles Times.
"B-Rock O'Breezy" might not persuade a single 26-year-old to enroll in the Obamacare exchanges, but Lee will have plenty of laudatory links and Facebook likes to point to as proof of the project's success.
Young conservatives, meanwhile, have taken delight in making fun of Democrats' flailing Obamacare outreach efforts. David Pasch, communications director for the Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, singled out the Colorado ad campaign: "We had a good laugh when we first saw those ads because they manage to perfectly capture just how clueless the consulting class is when it comes to marketing to young people."
"The key to reaching young people is authenticity," Pasch explained. "We can see through bullshit and don't like to be used as political props."
But when Generation Opportunity decided to launch its own ad campaign this past fall to convince young people to opt out of Obamacare, it didn't exactly go the "authenticity" route. Instead, it created a terrifying character dubbed "Creepy Uncle Sam" who pops up uninvited during your doctor's appointments, at your apartment, and on Snapchat.
The campaign has unquestionably been the most viral of the outreach efforts on either side of the Obamacare fight, racking up millions of YouTube views and a steady stream of press coverage. But its most famous commercial also drew widespread criticism for appearing to equate the Affordable Care Act with being raped by Uncle Sam.
The online debate that followed the ads has been nothing if not predictable, with partisans on each side retreating to their corners to hurl talking points and insults and sarcastic hashtags at each other. But if the "Creepy Uncle Sam" ads have amounted to little more than choir-preaching, the Koch brothers, who are funding the project, don't appear to mind.
A lobbyist recalled to BuzzFeed recently meeting with the Kochs' top political brass, who were giddy at all the attention the campaign had received. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars in 2012 on failed attempts to take back the White House and Senate, they were thrilled that the project was seen — at least in Republican circles — as a success.
"And we're hardly spending any money on it!" the lobbyist recalled one of the executives boasting.
With reporting from Jacob Fischler.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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