Two decades ago, it took just 30 seconds to kill health care reform.
In 1993, Americans were invited into the fictional homes of Harry and Louise in a series of short television ads. Sitting at their dining table, the couple lamented President Clinton’s health care proposals, worried that they would raise taxes and reduce patient choice.
The $17 million TV campaign was funded by the lobbying group Health Insurance Association of America to stop Clinton’s sweeping reforms. And the commercials worked, frightening the real Harrys and Louises — middle-class policyholders — into action. Voters fought back, and Congress received 250,000 calls and letters after the spots aired.
Insiders were shocked. The Clinton administration’s proposal, dubbed Hillarycare for the first lady’s influence, was dead.
The man behind that campaign was political advertising executive Ben Goddard. In that moment, Goddard became the father of issue-advocacy advertising. Back then, lobbyists almost never used commercials; they were expensive and untested in issue campaigns. The Harry and Louise campaign launched a wave of lobbying-by-television, and corporations quickly realized the power of targeting consumers to mobilize public support behind policy issues they wanted to bury. Goddard and his business partner, Rick Claussen, were “political hired guns with a knack for finding the bull’s-eye,” Businessweek declared in 1995.
Getting “Harry and Louised” became a real fear in Washington.
No other ad campaign from that time has stuck in the capital’s collective memory quite like Harry and Louise. The no-frills spots were, above all, believable. Hundreds of Americans were sitting around their dining tables, talking about their health insurance. That was Goddard and Claussen’s specialty: stripping down complex issues to expose a relatable message that inspired viewers to reach out to their elected officials.
“They didn’t want to hear about these issues from experts; they wanted to hear from real people,” Goddard, 71, tells National Journal, more than two decades after the ads ran. “And that’s what Harry and Louise were.”
Goddard started his communications career early, as a 16-year-old DJ in Idaho. After a stint as a television reporter, he founded an advertising agency in Boulder, then sold it six years later to help run then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 presidential campaign. A year later, Goddard founded First Tuesday, a Malibu, Calif.-based political media shop whose client list included governors and members of Congress, such as Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., and Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., as well as former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Goddard once came close to announcing a run for Congress himself, in Colorado as a Democrat. “I finally realized that I couldn’t do a campaign and still be involved in my business, and that was more important for me,” he says now.
In 1988, Goddard shifted from the campaign trail to corporate work. Two years later, he merged his company with Claussen’s media firm to create Goddard Claussen, which eventually opened an office in D.C. The political advertising firm that would derail a presidential initiative for national health care was born.
The first Harry and Louise spot was shot in August 1993. Goddard had cast actors Harry Johnson and Louise Caire Clark to play his average American couple. “I was not in a good mood because it was a table commercial,” Louise recalls. “I had not seen a copy of it, and I didn’t know what the commercial was about when I showed up on the set.”
Her mood worsened when she saw the script. “They give me a copy and I said, ‘Houston, we have a problem. I’m a Democrat and I believe in national health care,’ ” Louise said.
The exec directing the ad, who hadn’t yet introduced himself to Louise, poked his head out from behind a camera and looked at her. “Well, I’m Democrat too,” Goddard said. “Let’s talk about this.”
He took Louise aside and described the plan in great details, pointing out what he believed were irredeemable flaws. It clicked for Louise, and they started filming. “And then that night he asked me out for a drink,” she said. ‘I think it was because I was kind of difficult — not as an actress — but I was really going to walk off.”
That day marked the beginning of another pivotal moment for Goddard. He eventually married Louise, and his decision to cast her in the ad has been a running joke ever since. Goddard had played audition tapes of two women, one a redhead, the other a dirty-blond-haired Louise, back to back dozens of times. “It became clear to me — I just felt in my gut — that the public would respond better to Louise,” Goddard recalls.
“It was a tough call for me because I was very much into redheads at the time,” he adds, laughing.
Harry and Louise was no doubt Goddard’s most high-profile campaign. But just a few months before it took off, Goddard was in the middle of another historic project in Russia.
In spring 1993, a chief strategist for Russian President Boris Yeltsin reached out to Goddard’s firm. Yeltsin’s party had a referendum coming up — in three weeks, actually — that would preserve his free-market reforms, and he needed Western-style advertising to get Russian voters’ support.
Goddard hopped on a plane to Moscow, taking with him John A. Ridgway, whose TV production firm designed graphics for CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Entertainment Tonight. During the day, the pair, speaking through translators, met with top Yeltsin aides and members of the Center for Russian Democratic Reform to talk strategy. At night, they sketched ideas on cocktail napkins in their hotel lounge.
They came up with five TV spots in one week — and they did it for free. “They have no money to pay for anything over there,” Goddard said at the time. The ads pushed the idea of a new, democratic Russia, juxtaposing bleak images of the old Soviet government with photos of smiling children. They aired on Russian TV networks just a week before the referendum, which passed.
“No one is claiming that the ads vastly changed the outcome of the referendum that kept Yeltsin in power and Russia on the road to democratic reforms,” wrote Bruce Horovitz for the Los Angeles Times in May 1993. “But after the vote, several of Yeltsin’s foes gave backhanded compliments to the ads by decrying them as misleading — a criticism commonly leveled at successful American political spots.”
Two decades later, Goddard remembers his experience fondly. “It was just incredibly fascinating to be involved in — communicating with people in a language that I didn’t understand and being part of a culture that I only vaguely understood,” he said.
One of those people was the deputy mayor of Moscow at the time: Vladimir Putin. “I liked him, personally,” Goddard recalls of the now Russian president, who seemed to him “a man on a mission” when they met. “I thought he was very, very tough. That came through loud and clear to me,” Goddard says. “I remember telling someone afterwards that there was something going on behind his eyes that was — it sort of stopped you in your tracks “… even then it was clear to me that he was going somewhere.”
A few years after the Yeltsin campaign, Goddard and Claussen sold their firm to Omnicom, an international communications conglomerate. The partnership was brief, and the duo announced their departure — and their return to a smaller firm — in 2003. “We had gotten too busy doing client liaison and dealing with human resources, accounting, and management issues,” Goddard told National Journal back then. “We wanted to get back to being involved with clients in a hands-on way.” Goddard was used to directing every TV commercial his firm created, and he had lost a sense of entrepreneurship because he was only doing about two or three spots a year.
Also in 2003, Goddard and Louise sold their Malibu home and moved to Washington, where they live now. “We wanted to send a very clear signal that we were committed to being in this market,” Goddard says. “We thought the way to do that was to be here full time.”
Goddard Claussen split in two — geographically — in 2010. Claussen headed to Sacramento to run Goddard Claussen/West, which later merged with the Ginsberg McLear Group to become Redwood Pacific, a public-affairs firm. Goddard stayed in Washington, running Goddard Gunster with his longtime pupil, Gerry Gunster. The pair eventually opened offices in London, Cairo, and Brussels.
Over the years, Goddard’s extensive list of clients has included everything from life insurers and utility corporations to nonprofit groups. For Curesnow, he created commercials promoting stem-cell research in 2002. For the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Goddard wrote and produced two films in 2005 about the push to stop the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. For the American Beverage Association, Gunster helped defeat former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial soda tax in 2013, a project that the American Association of Political Consultants gave its best advocacy-campaign-of-the-year award. Goddard won an Emmy award for his work in television, and his commercials are in the Smithsonian.
Last year, Goddard began slowly stepping away from the desk at Goddard Gunster. He will continue consulting and remain chairman of the recently launched Goddard Institute of Public Affairs, which offers issue-specific advocacy training for corporate and nonprofit groups.
As for Harry and Louise, the pair recently made a comeback in August 2008, during the Democratic National Convention. This time, they were on the side of national health care reform. “Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda,” Louise tells Harry. “Bring everyone to the table and make it happen.” They popped up again in July 2009, in support of the Affordable Care Act. The ads were sponsored by Families USA, the American Hospital Association, and pharmaceutical industry trade groups.
The couple that stymied Democrats two decades ago has remained in the shadow for this year’s battle over Obamacare, set to boil over during the midterm elections. Republicans are gaining ground in their campaigns by railing against the health care law, and Democrats are trying to hold onto their seats by changing the subject. Looking ahead, though, Goddard and the real-life Louise are optimistic about a Hillary Clinton presidential bid for 2016. Louise says she would vote for the former first lady she helped bring down in 1993.
She just hopes Clinton isn’t still mad at her. After all, not only did Louise’s acting gig kill health care reform, it also planted the seeds for large Democratic losses during the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans swept the House, Senate, and governor’s mansions.
The Goddards ran into the Clintons at breakfast at the Old Ebbitt Grill in 1994, after the campaign had dealt its fatal blow. “I’ve never been so nervous in all my life. I was shaking,” Louise recalls. “They were both very gracious. He was very gracious, and she wanted to know why I was there — to make more of those commercials, or what?”