Health ads' public impact questioned

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Contrary to news reports and White House statements, the controversial "Harry" and "Louise" advertisements run by the insurance industry have not swung public opinion against President Clinton's health care reform plan, according to a new study.

The insurance industry's TV ad campaign, which began last year and was renewed this week, features a fictional couple who worry that the Clinton plan would result in the rationing of health care and government control of the health care system -- allegations the White House denies.


Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton have attacked the ads, which the White House and some members of Congress have blamed for a downturn in public sentiment for the president's reform plan, now favored by fewer than half of Americans.

This spring, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, viewed the ads with such alarm that he offered concessions to the insurance industry in exchange for a promise not to run the ads for a few weeks.


But neither these ads nor others run by various groups interested in health reform had a big impact on the public, according to the study issued yesterday by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The center is the public service arm of the Times Mirror Co., which owns The Sun.

The study concluded that "few people" recalled seeing the ads and that those who did "were not particularly moved by" the message criticizing the Clinton plan.

But the study credited the Health Insurance Association of America, which paid for the ads, with running a "smart and successful campaign." Although the public wasn't very familiar with the ads, they had a significant impact on "movers and shakers" in Washington, including the White House, Congress and journalists, the study said.

The health insurers' group challenged some of the findings. The ads did reach a large audience, asserted Chip Kahn, the association's executive vice president. "Our polling shows that well over a third of Americans have some familiarity with 'Harry and Louise.' "

The study criticized the news media for superficial and inaccurate reporting on health care reform advertising, including the insurance industry campaign. There was less advertising than the news media suggested; in some cases the media were misled by groups that announced ad campaigns but didn't run them, or ran less extensive campaigns than promised.