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Health Care Ad Costs Around $50 Million And Rising

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Interest groups have spent about $50 million in television advertisements to influence the health care debate, a prominent media analyst said on Thursday. And the total is rising fast.

Groups are currently shelling out about $1.5 million a day on ads that have aired both nationally and in local markets, according to Evan Tracey of the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group. On several occasions, the money spent on television ads in a single day has been greater than $2 million.

The heavy levels of spending reflect what Tracey says is a new stage in the debate. During the first five months of President Barack Obama's tenure in office, most stakeholders in the health care system were generally in agreement that reform was needed. In July, fault lines began to emerge.

"They have moved out of the first phase of this campaign, which was mostly about the idea that people where cheerleading reform," said Tracey. "Now you are seeing more of the particulars and sharper ads."

The majority of the money is coming from organizations supportive of the president's efforts. According to Campaign Media Analysis Group, approximately White House allied have spent $17 million on TV ads, compared to $9 million spent by groups fighting the administration's approach.

More than $20 million has been spent by groups that have pushed what Tracey called a "general health care message," including the older-citizens lobby group AARP and the pharmaceutical lobby, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). An additional $2 million to $3 million have been spent by "issue stakeholders" -- such as groups arguing against a tax on soda to pay for health care reform.

As telling as the rise in expenditures has been, the places where the ads have aired also provides a window into the health care debate. According to Tracey, roughly half of the spots have gone on network cable and in the Washington D.C. market, in an effort that is designed to influence journalists and Capitol Hill staff. The rest of the money has been spread around the country, but mostly in small states and inexpensive media markets like Maine, Louisiana, and North Dakota. The targets, says Tracey, have been mostly moderate senate Democrats and Republicans.

Only in the last few weeks have health care reform advocates and detractors turned their attention to specific members of the House of Representatives. There has also been a recent increase in the number of advertisements targeting Republican leadership, which Tracey attributes to laying down a "marker for the 2010 elections."

Placed in a historical context, the current ad purchases are unprecedented. During the last attempt at major health care reform -- Bill Clinton's failed efforts in the early 1990s -- the television ad wars were drastically lopsided. The infamous Harry and Louise ads, Tracey notes, were believed to have cost $20 million to $25 million (production expenditures included). Few other groups were on the air in 1993 and 1994.

Obama allies are already approaching those Harry and Louise totals, which is both good and bad news for the White House. Despite all that spending, Obama has seen the public's trust in his ability to handle health care diminish over the last month. Tracey predicts that the ad wars will escalate even further come September when opposition to the president will crystallize around actual pieces of legislation.

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