Random Thoughts Amid Mess Marketing

By J.F. McKenna

A professional associate invited me to watch President Obama’s Rose Garden presser on the Affordable Health Care Act. Frankly, I expected that accepting this invitation would demonstrate worthiness not only as a business colleague but as a luncheon partner as well.

As POTUS leaned on the outdoor bully pulpit, my mind began to drift, as the minds of veteran reporters often do after they’ve heard the opening salvo of their umpteenth political address. Drifting of this sort is typically accelerated when the aim of the address is to cover up recent failures. The almost-overnight debacle of the Obamacare website may have actually set a new record for initiating reportorial mind-wandering.

I started thinking about the late Ted Bernstein and his classic explanation of the difference between the words surprise and astonish.

In his classic text The Careful Writer, the iconic New York Times editor and language expert explains:  “You won’t catch this book retailing that bromidic tale about Noah Webster…who, when his wife said she was surprised at catching him dallying with the maid , replied, ‘No, madam, it is I who am surprised. You are astonished.’

“Nevertheless,” Bernstein continues, “the tale makes a point worth noticing about the two words, whose meaning tends to overlap these days. Both words convey the idea of wonder, but surprise contains the added ingredient of the unexpected.”

Even as I congratulated myself for reconstructing that passage from the book, the President’s pitch intruded into my reverie.

Of course, you’ve probably heard that HealthCare.gov –- the new website where people can apply for health insurance, and browse and buy affordable plans in most states –- hasn’t worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work….Through the marketplaces, you can get health insurance for what may be the equivalent of your cell phone bill or your cable bill, and that’s a good deal….So the fact is the product of the Affordable Care Act for people without health insurance is quality health insurance that’s affordable.  And that product is working.  It’s really good.  And it turns out there’s a massive demand for it….But the problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody.  And there’s no sugarcoating it.  The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process.  And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am — precisely because the product is good….And finally, if you’ve already tried to apply through the website and you’ve been stuck somewhere along the way, do not worry.  In the coming weeks, we will contact you directly, personally, with a concrete recommendation for how you can complete your application, shop for coverage, pick a plan that meets your needs, and get covered once and for all.

So here’s the bottom line.  The product, the health insurance is good.  The prices are good.  It is a good deal.  People don’t just want it; they’re showing up to buy it.  Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed….And in the meantime, you can bypass the website and apply by phone or in person.  So don’t let problems with the website deter you from signing up, or signing your family up, or showing your friends how to sign up, because it is worth it.  It will save you money.  

“Whoa!” said my colleague, no novice himself to the marketing racket. “I’m thinking that this infomercial should carry a disclaimer under the President’s image—overpaid spokesman.”

“He might be overselling, too,” I added charitably. “Remember what Peter Drucker always preached—the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous, and marketing means knowing and understanding the customer so well that the product sells itself.”

The presser concluded, I awaited my invitation to lunch. My colleague never made the offer. I was genuinely surprised.

On the other hand, while eating my lunch alone shortly thereafter, I digested some of what the President had said. I was simply astonished. Like most of the country.


CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor in chief of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He has chased stories throughout the country and as far away as Japan, Israel and that most exotic of financial lands, Wall Street. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.


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