Last week, we learned that Facebook users could win virtual currency for use in online games by sending an email to Congress opposing health-care reform.
In response, both the health insurers coalition thought to be behind the ads, and the P.R. firm hired by the coalition, claimed ignorance. A spokesman for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), which runs the coalition, Get Health Reform Right, told us yesterday that the coalition’s contract explicitly forbids the use of such “incentivized ads,” and said the ads that showed up on Facebook must be fakes. Pam Fielding, the president of 720 Strategies, which handled the campaign, said the same thing.
That may be true. But the Facebook ad isn’t the only “incentivized ad” that seems to promote the health insurers’ campaign against reform. And BCBSA and Fielding have worked together in the past on such ads, with Fielding defending their use.
Check out this ad from PlasmaTV4Free.com, which appears designed to get readers to send emails to Congress opposing reform, on behalf of the same coalition of health insurers run by BCBSA. The incentive, it seems, is the chance to win a free plasma TV. (Though, as with most such ads, readers are told: “All offers are optional — sign up if you are interested.”)
In response, Jeff Smokler of BCBSA noted that the coalition had suspended all online advertising last Thursday, and declared that, as with the Facebook ad, this ad “did not come from the coalition.” He said that BCBSA would investigate the source of this ad, in addition to the Facebook ad.
To bolster his case that such ads are fake, Smokler also referred to a different TPMmuckraker story from today, about a Chamber of Commerce campaign that used a Hooters gift card as an incentive. “I think the fact that someone is alleging that the US Chamber of Congress (sic) is incentivizing action with gift certificates to Hooters clearly shows that there is no legitimacy to these ads,” he wrote in an email to TPMmuckraker. “Clearly, these ads are fakes, and this is much bigger than Get Health Reform Right.” But the Chamber’s campaign, as we reported, doesn’t directly incentivize “action”, in the sense of contacts with lawmakers. Rather, it incentivizes people to sign up to receive emails from the Chamber’s anti-reform campaign. The Chamber has not responded to our request for comment.
It’s certainly plausible that the ads are fake. But BCBSA and Fielding — who did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment — weren’t always so squeamish about the use of incentivized promotions. In 2003, the AP reported that a coalition of insurers run by BCBSA was offering free trips to Washington D.C. as an incentive to write letters to Congress opposing a bill that would have let small businesses band together to offer insurance for their employees. In response to AP’s reporting, BCBSA said it would stop the advertising.
That campaign, AP reported, was handled for BCBSA by Fielding’s firm, which at the time was known as e-advocates. She defended the tactic, telling AP: “These are common techniques designed to get the attention of an activist long enough to read about the issue and decide where they stand on it. We are not the first to do it, and I’m quite sure we will not be the last.”
That stance contrasts somewhat with Fielding’s interview with us yesterday, in which she declared, “We strongly oppose using incentivization and we don’t use it on client campaigns.” She added: “We’re trying to do the kind of activism that the American people are proud of.”