In the 1997 movie "As Good
As It Gets," the single-mom waitress played by Helen Hunt
delighted audiences when she cursed her HMO.
The response was spontaneous and genuine, but Hunt's lines were
far from spontaneous - they actually were written by a Washington,
D.C. activist group pushing hard for a government-run health care
While most movie fans are aware
of product placements such as the BMW roadster in Pierce Brosnan's
film debut as James Bond, Hunt's words marked a relatively new
and rare phenomenon: issues placement.
As the health care debate heats
up in Congress, however, issues placement is about to become old
Seeking to spur Congress to pass universal health care coverage,
the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this week launched an aggressive
$8-million campaign tagged "Cover the Uninsured Week."
While the effort uses many of the usual PR devices such as bookings
on TV talk shows and newspaper op-eds, it also relies heavily
on "issues placement," i.e., references to the need
to provide universal coverage scripted into a variety of TV dramas
Among the shows that will contain
the foundation's heavily politicized message as part of their
plots this week: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,"
the NBC show sponsored by General Electric; "Strong Medicine,"
the Lifetime Channel drama set in a Philadelphia hospital; and
"Passions," a NBC daytime soap opera that features a
300-year-old witch (hopefully, one with a Medicare card).1
All of the references, many
of them subtle, were inserted into the scripts by TV writers,
many of whom attended a Los Angeles workshop on health care placements
conducted by the left-leaning Johnson Foundation last month.
"We know a lot of Americans get their information not only
from Brokaw and Rather but also from daytime soap operas and nighttime
drama," foundation spokesman Stuart Schear told The Wall
Street Journal earlier this month.2
"We have to get people
to realize that the people with these problems are real, with
real lives," adds Arthur Kellerman, a medical professor at
Emory University in Atlanta, who is helping the foundation deliver
The placements have drawn fire
from critics, who see the tactic as an unethical attempt to propagandize
moviegoers without disclosing that the scenes they are watching
have been carefully orchestrated by an advocacy group.
"I find this type of thing sort of insidious," said
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for
the Study of Popular Culture. When an actor swigs from a longneck
bottle of Budweiser or wears a pair of Nike running shoes, the
audience usually is hip enough to know they are watching a product
placement, he notes.
"Here you get it woven into the story and no one tells you
'this idea came from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.'"4
Numerous scenes in "ER,"
the award-winning drama set in the emergency room of a fictional
Chicago hospital accentuate Thompson's point.
Dee Johnson, the show's co-executive producer, says weaving the
foundation's pro-universal care message into the dialogue was
no problem because the issue "is sort of inherent in all
In the latest episode, the desk
clerk is on the phone telling a patient, "So what you're
saying is, you're sick, you're broke, you're unemployed and uninsured
-- yeah, sure, come on over."5
The issues placement campaign is expected to continue throughout
the year. But you can bet that none of the script inserts will
take a free-market approach -- suggesting, for instance, that
tax-credits for the purchase of private health insurance just
might be a better way to help the uninsured than handing their
fate to a legion of federal bureaucrats.
Officials at the Robert Wood
Johnson insist they are just trying to promote a public discussion
by helping the uninsured tell their story. What they are really
trying to do, of course, is to muffle the dissenting voices seeking
to reform health care by relying more on the incentive-driven
Given the statist philosophy that overlays the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation's health care bamboozle, it's surprising that normally
free enterprise groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the
American Medical Association have joined the effort. That action
is not in the best interests of their members nor of the American
David Ridenour is Vice President
of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington,
D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].
1 Laurie McGinley and Emily Nelson, "TV Scripts Highlight
Plight of Uninsured," Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2003.