In Harry's 'Fall,' couple from TV ad see other side of health care reform

July 09, 1994|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — At critical times in American history, the public has turned to great leaders for wisdom: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt -- and now, in 1994, Harry and Louise.

Sure, they're just characters in TV commercials that attack the White House health reform plan. But Harry and Louise are having more influence with some Americans than Bill and Hillary, the real-life couple who wrote the plan.

Which makes the Clintons awfully mad. They'd rather feed Socks to a pit bull than see their 1,342-page reform bill, thicker than the Washington phone book, being cut down in the polls by the health insurance industry, which is running the commercials.

So on Thursday, with the White House's blessing, the Democratic National Committee launched its own commercials, starring . . . Harry and Louise.

"Harry Takes a Fall," the title of the commercial, depicts Harry and Louise as an uninsured couple wondering how they'll pay their medical bills. Both are in bed, bandaged from head to toe. Louise is reading a book called "The President's Health Security Plan" and mocking Harry for having criticized the Clinton plan.

Louise elbows her bespectacled husband, whose bandages allow him only to grunt, until he rolls off the bed, crashing to the floor. The commercial concludes with a reference to the taxpayer-subsidized health plans of lawmakers. "Tell Congress you want what they already have: the security of affordable universalhealth coverage."

It's not quite Monty Python, but it's amusing, except perhaps to the Health Insurance Association of America, which struck a superior tone in its response: "It's hard to take these imitations of our Harry and Louise campaign seriously, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

The association actually might be a little worried about the Democratic commercials because, as the association convincingly demonstrated,Americans take commercials seriously. Maybe too seriously.

Association spokeswoman Barbara Gracey says that when the first Harry and Louise commercials ran, some reporters called up thinkingthey were real people, not actors. They wanted to know whether Harry and Louise would be making speeches.

That makes the commercial's producer, Ben Goddard, proud.

"They are real people," he says, only half-jokingly. "Clearly, they represent the views of real people."

People magazine tracked down the actors in the insurance industry commercials, Harry Johnson and Louise Caire Clark, whose quite real first names have become synonymous with their fictional personas. Turns out they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and have health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild.

Mr. Johnson, who has had parts in TV shows such as "Jake and theFatman," joked to the magazine that he had trained for the part of "Harry," who is supposed to represent the average American. "I did a lot of research," he said. "I went to Nebraska for a month and lived with a regular family, just like [Robert] De Niro would."

In one of the new insurance industry commercials, Harry is driving as Louise reads a newspaper next to him. They discuss health reform, saying Congress is "talking about price controls," which could lead to government limits on health spending and, Louise warns darkly, "rationing."

"You know, long waits for health care and some services not even available," she adds.

While it's true that Congress is considering some form of cost controls, it's highly debatable whether any plan enacted would lead to rationing.

The Democrats counter-commercials would be even better if they could have secured the services of Mr. Johnson and Ms. Clark. Instead, the Democrats found look-alike actors, identities unknown (though People magazine may be on their track).

What the actors are paid is not known. But if Mr. Johnson and Ms. Clark receive a percentage of what the insurance industry is spending on the commercials, they'll be shopping for new homes in Malibu. The current round of commercials costs $2 million; the association previously spent more than $10 million on Harry and Louise commercials.

By contrast, the Democratic National Committee has initially budgeted a mere $250,000.

The Democrats' commercials are running in Washington and New York; the insurance association's are appearing in 10 states and Washington, but not in Baltimore.

How much effect the commercials will have remains to be seen. One recent study of the insurance industry's Harry and Louise campaign concluded that it probably influenced only a fraction of the population. But the commercials, running frequently in Washington, got the attention of Congress and the White House, the most influential audience of all.

The president and first lady have responded with anger and with humor to the commercials. They appeared themselves as Harry and Louise in a video satire shown in March at the Gridiron Club dinner for the news media.

Referring to the president's plan, Mrs. Clinton said, "On page 27,655, it says that eventually we are all going to die."

To which "Harry" responds, "Under the Clinton health plan? You mean, after Bill and Hillary put all those new bureaucrats and taxes on us? We're still all going to die?"

Well, the audience thought it was funny.

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