What the White House Communications Team Could Learn from the Auto Industry

I never received any direct mail advertisements or email from Toyota until 1996, which is the year I bought the Camry that I still drive today. In the ensuing months, I received newsletters describing all the great things Toyota was doing, handy tips on how to use the features on my car, discounted offers for maintenance, and glossy announcements of Toyota’s plans for future models.

I asked a friend in the automobile industry why it seemed that Toyota was blowing its advertising budget trying to sell me the car I had already bought. He told me that the car companies had figured out that the person most easily persuaded to buy one of their cars in the future is someone who had done so in the past. The critical problem of sales was therefore making people feel really good about what they had just purchased so that they would stick with the same brand in the future.

This could be contrasted to the approach the President’s communications team has taken to the Affordable Care Act. Before the ink was dry on the law they moved on to the next topic, when they should have been making people feel good about the President’s signature achievement. I wish that in the months after the ACA’s passage the President Obama had done a major media event every single week featuring a single person whose life was positively affected by the law:

“This is Iniga Sanchez, a dentist from Dearborn. His son had a psychotic break at age 23 and would normally have had no insurance. The Sanchez family would have had to either go bankrupt or rely solely on public mental hospitals. Instead, due to the ACA, Mr. Sanchez’s son was covered on his parents’ insurance and is now getting excellent care that his family can afford”.

“This is Robert Wilson, a mechanic from Tuscaloosa. His cancer has been in remission for 5 years but until the ACA no company would sell him health insurance. Today, because of the ACA, he has it”.

“This is Margaret Brown, a grocery store cashier from Las Vegas. She works hard at her job for minimum wage, making just enough money to not qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private health insurance. But because of the ACA, she will qualify for Medicaid after not having any insurance for many years.”

Rinse and repeat, over and over again, just like Toyota. Mind-numbingly dull perhaps for the President, but absolutely necessary to explain to a disengaged public why they should feel good about what they just bought. Indeed, the need for such “post-purchase” advertising is far greater in politics than in the car industry because no one sends Toyota buyers brochures saying how lousy their new car really is. The reality of politics is that when you don’t do your own post-purchase marketing, your opponents are happy to step in and do it for you, to your great detriment.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.