Hollywood Goes Political Yet Again: “Issues Placement” Strategy Promotes Government-Run Health Care

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 system.

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 hat.

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 and sitcoms.

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 its message.3

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 the storylines.”

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 private sector.

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 people.


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].

Footnotes1 Laurie McGinley and Emily Nelson, “TV Scripts Highlight Plight of Uninsured,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2003.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.