Folks, first I have to say that Sunday's passage of national health care legislation by the House(219 to 212) has got me fuming. On a personal level I worry that the health care bill will deprive me and those I love of the opportunity to get the finest health care in the world here at home. As an American, I worry that this is another step toward taking away that fire of self-reliance, common sense and, yes, risk, that is at the core of what it means to be an American.
But it is as a marketer that my jaw really drops and I find myself shouting at the television: what do these geniuses think they’re doing?
Fact is, from a marketing perspective this new health care law is about as ham-fisted and stupid as the Volstead Act of 1919. Yes, I’m speaking about Prohibition.
Now you might not think that there is a connection between the landmark legislation that made it illegal for any person to “manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor” and a health care plan that is supposedly intent on providing every person with health care.
But the marketing of health care and the marketing of Prohibition have one big thing in common: there’s been no genuine marketing only political maneuvering and one-upmanship.
Prohibition was a political triumph, in much the same way as Sunday’s historic vote. And looked at strictly politically, it really was a triumph, because no one except a relatively small band of powerful zealots really wanted it and somehow they managed to push it through the legislative process. In that sense it was an achievement –something hard to pull off. But just because something is hard to do, doesn’t mean that you should do it or stand around afterward patting yourself on the back.
Health care has shaped up the same way. The Democrats might have the majority in this fight and deployed it well, but their triumph is and will be a political triumph only. And it’s all about them and not the majority who were not in favor of this bill! It’s also all about Barack Obama wanting to be the first president to get serious health care reform passed and about the Democrats believing that they know best about what the American people need and want. -- But, remember, people buy brands, not companies. And health care reform is one brand they simply don’t want to buy. It’s like manufacturing that re-usable mousetrap that no one will buy because after it is used once, who wants to use it again?!
What’s wrong with ignoring the marketing? Plenty. Marketing is listening. Ignoring marketing in building legislation means ignoring what the people want –this is never good because a) legislators are there to serve the people’s needs and b) the people vote. In neither case, Prohibition or health care did the people really want the kind of things being delivered by the legislation. And this should never be forgotten especially when it comes to the upcoming election this coming November.
Luckily, history can tell us what will happen with health care.
Bottom line, big reforms like this aren’t easy to undo even if the party that puts them into place gets promptly thrown out of office. That’s why passage of this health care reform matters so much –we are all going to be living with the results for a very long time.
The good news is that Volstead was eventually repealed when it became crystal clear to everyone including many of those originally for it that such legislation was an awful idea.
The bad news is that a great deal of damage can be done before the legislation is repealed. Among other things, prohibition of alcohol in this country led to the rise of criminal gangs who -- to be honest— understood marketing a lot better than the politicians. They saw that there was a great need to fill and they built their outlaw enterprises to fill it.
Prohibition led to the increasing power and presence of organized crime in our country and, even though the Act didn’t outlaw the consumption of alcohol, it put most Americans in the awkward position of defying their own government by supporting the illegal trade. This is what happens when legislation is passed without the marketing concept. The marketing concept for a product always puts the customer’s wants and needs first. The marketing concept for legislation must do the same.
Unfortunately, we can expect the same kind of unintended consequences for health care reform as we saw with Prohibition. We may very well third-worldize our health care system. We might just be looking at a future where Americans fly to other countries for treatment, where we lose our top medical talent or dis-incentivize our best and brightest from becoming doctors, where we see the growth in “underground” medical services to meet the need of patients who are faced with an unworkable bureaucracy. And what is this going to do to the free enterprise that has driven so much medical innovation? No one knows.
When the columnist Robert Samuelson, whom you might expect would have supported health care reform, attacks the legislation as bad for our country’s long-term interests and the president and Democrats in Congress for serving their own reform agenda which he labels “self-indulgent,” you’ve got to take notice. What he’s saying is that they think they know better than everyone else.
People who think this way usually don’t listen –and, folks, they’re not. But they will when we go to the polls –but will it be too late?
And remember, the business of politics is always easier when you keep marketing in mind.
John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert and president of the Marketing Department of America who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He is a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum and the author of a new book "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."
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