What the White House Communications Team Could Learn from the Auto Industry

I never received any direct mail advertisements or email from Toyota until 1996, which is the year I bought the Camry that I still drive today. In the ensuing months, I received newsletters describing all the great things Toyota was doing, handy tips on how to use the features on my car, discounted offers for maintenance, and glossy announcements of Toyota’s plans for future models.

I asked a friend in the automobile industry why it seemed that Toyota was blowing its advertising budget trying to sell me the car I had already bought. He told me that the car companies had figured out that the person most easily persuaded to buy one of their cars in the future is someone who had done so in the past. The critical problem of sales was therefore making people feel really good about what they had just purchased so that they would stick with the same brand in the future.

This could be contrasted to the approach the President’s communications team has taken to the Affordable Care Act. Before the ink was dry on the law they moved on to the next topic, when they should have been making people feel good about the President’s signature achievement. I wish that in the months after the ACA’s passage the President Obama had done a major media event every single week featuring a single person whose life was positively affected by the law:

“This is Iniga Sanchez, a dentist from Dearborn. His son had a psychotic break at age 23 and would normally have had no insurance. The Sanchez family would have had to either go bankrupt or rely solely on public mental hospitals. Instead, due to the ACA, Mr. Sanchez’s son was covered on his parents’ insurance and is now getting excellent care that his family can afford”.

“This is Robert Wilson, a mechanic from Tuscaloosa. His cancer has been in remission for 5 years but until the ACA no company would sell him health insurance. Today, because of the ACA, he has it”.

“This is Margaret Brown, a grocery store cashier from Las Vegas. She works hard at her job for minimum wage, making just enough money to not qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private health insurance. But because of the ACA, she will qualify for Medicaid after not having any insurance for many years.”

Rinse and repeat, over and over again, just like Toyota. Mind-numbingly dull perhaps for the President, but absolutely necessary to explain to a disengaged public why they should feel good about what they just bought. Indeed, the need for such “post-purchase” advertising is far greater in politics than in the car industry because no one sends Toyota buyers brochures saying how lousy their new car really is. The reality of politics is that when you don’t do your own post-purchase marketing, your opponents are happy to step in and do it for you, to your great detriment.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “What the White House Communications Team Could Learn from the Auto Industry”

  1. That probably would have been a good idea just to improve public knowledge of what was in the law, because the pieces have always polled a lot better than “the health reform law” as a unit, but it would have been a real challenge to find people positively affected by it if the bus tour was happening last March/April. Because of the way it was set up, the Robert Wilson/Margaret Brown examples don’t work yet–those rules don’t go into effect until 2014. It’s a much less exciting photo op to say “If she can make it through another three years, Margaret will qualify for Medicaid under the ACA!” That sort of begs the question of whether the law’s long implementation timeline was wise (or if it even could have been shortened), but as it was passed, the tour would have had to be mostly young people and seniors benefiting from the Medicare Part D donut hole-fix.

  2. Looking back at a couple of Nancy Drew articles on re-election, it seems like that the Obama strategy for re-election is to appeal to middle/upper class middle/older whitish voters who think that more spending benefits minorities and lower taxes benefit themselves:


    «It all goes back to the “shellacking” Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less. This was an arguable interpretation. Nevertheless, the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.

    That explains a lot about the course the President has been taking this year. The political team’s reading of these voters was that to them, a dollar spent by government to create a job is a dollar wasted. The only thing that carries weight with such swing voters, they decided — in another arguable proposition — is cutting spending. Moreover, like Democrats — and very unlike Republicans — these voters do not consider “compromise” a dirty word.»

    «The speech Obama gave on April 13 marked his conversion to fiscal centrism; to being the fiscally responsible Democrat. In that speech he stated that he wanted to reduce the debt by $4 trillion — thus aligning himself with the Republicans — but also asked for revenues to partly offset that reduction. It was all about reelection politics, designed to appeal to this same group of independents. “And that’s why,” I was told by the person familiar with the White House deliberations, “he went bigger in the deficit reduction talks; bringing in Social Security is consistent with that slice of the electorate they’re trying to reach.”»

    The kinds of voter that the Obama re-election campaign is trying to reach perceive the ACA as public spending benefiting someone else, however wrong they may be. But yes, they could do more to sell Obama better. But when voters give a free pass on ludicrousness to most Republican candidates, it would take a campaigning “genius” like Obama to downplay his achievements so far.

  3. Blissex, are you sure you don’t mean Tom Swift rather than Nancy Drew? Or maybe Elizabeth Drew? My preference is Tom Swift, but YMMV

  4. Good post overall, but that first example is a bad one. One, Americans don’t care about — are repulsed by — mental health problems, so no sympathy there. Second, the guy’s a dentist. The median income for U.S. dentists is $135k — the guy needs to get his own insurance and cover his son if he’s not otherwise cover-able.

    1. The point is that his son, at 23, would no longer have been able to get coverage under Dad’s policy. And the mental health problems would have made the son unable to get individual coverage no matter who was paying.

      1. I’m not arguing with the policy. I’m arguing that that story is not good public relations. I’m attempting to present the attitudes the target audience (those opposed to ACA) will present to the anecdote.

        1. Then just frikkin pick another one. Keith was (IMHO) presenting an example. What one might call a first draft. The pros, of course, should be considering what you pointed out, and using examples which are harder[1] for the right to bash.

          [1] There will be nobody who’s impossible for the right to bash, due to the fact that the wingnutosphere will drop standards as needed.

  5. And the thing is that Obama himself would only need to be involved occasionally; much of the work could be handled by a dedicated staff (say, in the Dept of HHS).

    1. IIRC, Federal agencies are not allowed to spend more on public relations than Congress has specifically allocated for that purpose. So if HHS doesn’t have a budget for touting the benefits of Obamacare all over the networks, then the job will have to be handled by the President’s re-election campaign.

      1. OK. This still means that it’s not going to suck all of Obama’s time and energy. And it’s money that would help him and other Democratic politicians.

  6. Mind-numbingly dull perhaps for the President, but absolutely necessary…

    It doesn’t matter how damn dull it is, so long as the other side insists on foaming on about “death” panels, you’ve got to apply at least an equal an opposite “life” force. Mr. Obama is not Mr Jobs. He should not show up twice a year for a new product launch, and then vanish from the public eye to work on the next great thing.

    Perhaps the Presidency worked that way before Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. But not anymore. Now you’ve got to contravene and counterplot and countermine: 24/7. Mr. Obama is right about the not trying to win the news cycle, but wrong about why that it is so: Because the news cycle never stops, there is no news cycle to win. There is only the next second and the next second and the next second. It is an eternal media war of attrition for the dwindling attention spans of the vanishing minds of Americans. This is why Ailes and Rush blow so hard. And that is why so many of us said: Our dog don’t hunt (or even “arf”). For god sakes Mr. Obama, quit waving those childish golf sticks around (talk about mind-numbingly dull), and get out in front of the public, and do some baraking.

    1. Sadly, this is probably all correct. Just imagine what would have happened if Harold never heard another thing from Toyota, meanwhile Ford and Chevy were flooding the airwaves with stories about Toyota being the antichrist, etc.

  7. My understanding is that the provisions of the ACA that you are touting don’t kick in until 2014, at the earliest, so I don’t see how President Obama could actually say any of those things since they are not true at the present time. What I suppose he could say is something like:

    “Mr. Sanchez’s son will hopefully be covered on his parents’ insurance unless the health insurance companies find a loophole to not have to cover him or to charge the Sanchez family an extortionate premium, in which case the Sanchez family would still have to go bankrupt”

    “This is Robert Willson. Before the ACA nobody would sell him health insurance. The good news is that if he doesn’t die between now and, say, 2014 when the ACA takes effect there a good chance that we can make somebody sell him an insurance policy (unless, of course, the regulations are tied up in court in which case his cancer better stay in remission for at least the next 20 years or so while this works it way through the courts)”.

    This is Margaret Brown. If the Democrats take back and keep both Houses of Congress in perpetuity then because of the ACA she will qualify for Medicaid. Because if the Republicans have either house after 2014 they will simply cut the ACA’s budget and there will be even less money for Medicaid than there is today and she will be totally screwed”

    Basically, I don’t think people have any reason to feel good about what they’ve bought because we don’t know what we’re going to get until we open the box in 2014. Maybe lots of great stuff. Maybe just crap. Not a great campaign slogan.

    Now, if he’d made the law take effect immediately, what you say would be true and it would really be something to crow about. The idea that things might be better if this law works the way we think it will isn’t that exciting.

  8. Mitch pretty much nails this one. A few provisions are in place. For example, I could have put my daughter on my coverage, if she were 26 instead of 27. She’s just going to have to hope that while she is in graduate school nothing comes up. But what about all the 20-somethings out there whose parents have no coverage themselves? ACA is little more that a sop to the current insurance regime. And it resembles nothing that Barack Obama campaigned on. Liar.

  9. The real lesson from the automotive industry that Obama needs to take to heart is the Edsel lesson: It doesn’t matter how much YOU like your product, if the customer hates it your advertising budget is going to be wasted on anybody who’s already bought one.

    1. It would help, Brett, if you weren’t ignoring poll data that, when it asks people about the individual provisions of “Obamacare” (instead of just asking “do you like Obamacare?”) indicates that people like the reform.

  10. paul says:

    “One of the provisions that’s in place is the no-rescissions rule. You could make a lot of hay with that.”

    I could spin straw into gold with that. Lots of truly pitiable situations, with ‘good’ people who ‘played by the rules’, and were ‘responsible for their own insurance’ who got scr*wed just when they really needed that insurance.

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