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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, November 24, 2014

When the New York Times’ Robert Pear wrote recently of the “powerful, mutually beneficial partnership” forged by the Obama Administration and the nation’s health insurers around the Affordable Care Act, he singled out the “crucial support” insurers provided the Administration in legal battles and in repairing Healthcare.gov.

As big a boon for the Administration, if not bigger: an advertising deluge dedicated to signing people up. Health insurance ad spending across TV, radio, print, and digital in Q4 2013-Q1 2014, the first enrollment window, more than doubled from Q4 2012-Q1 2013, zooming from $173 million to $384 million, according to CMAG’s parent company Kantar Media. Fifty-seven percent of that $384 million went to TV.

During Q1-Q2 of 2014, the latter half of the first open enrollment window (OE1), health insurer ad spend helped propel the overall insurance category—including health, auto, property, and other types—into Kantar Media’s rankings at that time of the top 10 advertiser categories for ad spend.

As important as the spending, however, are new signs that insurers are warming to the job. During the first three days of OE2 (November 15-17, 2014), 177 unique health insurer brands were on television. That’s up from 129 who were on the air during the first three days of OE1 (October 1-3, 2013). Some of these insurers were on the air to capitalize on the Medicare enrollment window, which overlaps with the ACA enrollment window, but that was the case in fall 2013 as well.

The messaging also has changed from OE1. Mostly gone from the ads—at least so far—are terms such as “concerned” and “confused,” as well as the occasional more direct diss. Last time, many insurers were leery of appearing to endorse a publicly unpopular law and angled to position themselves in their ads as the reassuring answer to a situation that was worrisome, even scary.

So far in OE2, not only aren’t we seeing creepy beating hearts or hearing envelope-pushing rhetoric about the ACA driving up insurance premiums—we’re seeing more outright pro-ACA messaging. During the first three days of enrollment, of all insurer ad occurrences that made some actual reference to the ACA, 43% of those references were positive and 55% were neutral, according to CMAG coding. During the first three days of OE1, we tagged just 11% as pro and 89% as neutral.

The shorter enrollment window is injecting new urgency. Many early ads warn of the (steeper) fines that await those who fail to sign up this time. We’re also seeing a lot of ads right out of the gate telling viewers they have just one month to enroll before the December 15 deadline in order to be covered by January 1, which probably has more to do with insurers’ own fiscal calendars than the government’s timetable.

But for those of us who’ve been staring at health insurance ads (all two of us?) since the ACA hit, these shifts from the opening days of OE1 have been immediately noticeable. For the larger group of saner observers following the one major 2014 race still winding its way toward an outcome, here’s another way to view the shift: 68% of Republican-sponsored TV spots tracked by CMAG (on broadcast) in the Louisiana Senate race before Election Day were anti-“Obamacare.” In the runoff so far? Twenty-six percent.

CMAG’s Mitchell West contributed to this column.