Obama on Two Ferns: Did It Work?

Whether or not you agree with The Affordable Care Act, you have to give President Obama credit for using some pretty smart marketing strategies to get the word out to young people.  Last week a web video was released with the President being interviewed by comedian Zach Galifianakis on the internet show, Between Two Ferns, which was posted on the popular website Funny or Die.  The goal of the interview was to convince young people to sign up for health coverage.  To date, over 4.2 million people have signed up for health care, but there is a particularly low number of enrollments by young adults.  Of course to achieve affordable rates system-wide, the cost of insuring older plan members must be offset by young people, who are relatively healthier and cheaper to cover.  As of the end of February, people in the 18-35 age range comprised a paltry 27 percent of enrollments, while 35-40 percent represents the golden ratio necessary to keep premium costs down. In an effort to reach these young adults and get them to enroll, this video was created.

President Obama's Between Two Ferns appearance was aired March 11th.

President Obama’s Between Two Ferns appearance was aired March 11th.

As might be expected, there has been a fair share of criticism about the President’s “new age” strategies, with some fretting that it may be damaging the dignity of the office.  Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly expressed his skepticism, saying it was “demeaning” to the presidency and that, “Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have done it.”

But the fact is many presidents have employed comedy to promote their causes.  Rachel Maddow, an MSNBC reporter, points this out in a rebuttal to O’Reilly, describing how Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, George W. Bush, and Richard Nixon all made their own forays into the world of tongue and cheek.  And even with the Lincoln example, author Fred Kaplan discusses Lincoln’s love for comedy and his use of it in many of his writings and speeches in the book Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.

My intent with this blog isn’t to wade too far into the “dignity of the office” debate, but rather to take a look at whether or not Obama’s Two Ferns appearance worked as a 21st century marketing move.  If his goal was to get the attention of millions of Americans, specifically young Americans, and direct them to the healthcare.gov website, I think you’d have to say it did. Tara McGuinness, a Senior Communications Advisor at the White House, reported that “FunnyorDie.com is the #1 source of referrals to Healthcare.gov right now.”  And since its release on March 11th, the video has already received over 15 million views and healthcare.gov has reported a 40% increase in traffic. From my own experience, after the release of the video my Facebook news feed was flooded with comments and reposts. As a politics major, I’m usually the first person in my house to comment on political issues, yet when I went to show my roommate she had already seen it.

Creating a genuinely funny online video is an intelligent and highly effective method for reaching young adults. It can be easily spread through social media and has an entertaining element. Looks like team Obama finally woke up to this – in the video, Galifianakis jokingly apologizes for having to cancel several times (“My mousepad broke last week,”), but actually the Two Ferns crew had pitched the idea to the White House last summer.  Seems like the only question now is would the government be scrambling to get young people to sign up if they had put more effort into their internet marketing strategy and perhaps taken Mr. Galifianakis up earlier.

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