Though the political world may be in the midst of another high-stakes standoff over the fate of health care reform, advocates and opponents of the president's Affordable Care Act aren't actually putting that much money behind their respective causes.
Spending on health care television advertisements is relatively low right now, according to ad trackers.
Elizabeth Wilner, vice president for Strategic Initiatives of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, estimated that since Election Day 2012 the total amount of money spent on health care-related advocacy ads was in the millions, but in the "low double-digits." That may seem like a lot, but considering that private health insurers are projected to spend $1 billion in marketing centering mostly around the Affordable Care Act, it's not all that much.
Not everyone is keeping their wallets closed. Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy organization funded by the conservative Koch brothers, recently released an ad featuring a cancer survivor decrying the perils of Obamacare.
The White House-backing Organizing for Action, meanwhile, has been running ads in support of the law. But it's not entirely clear how much money OFA is putting behind the effort. Wilner said the figure is certainly short of the million-dollar-plus investment promised, but an OFA official insisted the organization met that commitment.
"OFA had a seven-figure, three-part ad series throughout the summer months highlighting the benefits of Obamacare," the official said. "The first ad looked at benefits Americans are already seeing through the law's implementation, and the two other ads were stories of families' personal experiences receiving the benefits of Obamacare. All three ads were on national cable news and the two personal story ads were additionally on Lifetime and Bravo."
Regardless of what OFA spent, it was more than the group Generation Opportunity spent. That group, also backed by the Koch brothers, made a splash last week when it released an ad featuring a creepy Uncle Sam gynecologist performing an exam on a college-age woman. But Wilner said the spot hasn't actually aired on television.
"It is a web ad as far as I know," she said.
Calls to Generation Opportunity weren't returned. The organization appears to have an automated voicemail system that doesn't actually identify the office.
There are several explanations for why spending on health-care television advertising is relatively low, even with the debate over the health care law at a fever pitch. One is that organizations are exhausted after pushing the issue for years. After all, Wilner said, $500 million was spent on health care ads between the law's passage in 2010 and July 2013.
Another is that the debate right now doesn't lend itself to issue advocacy. Absent some unforeseen event in Washington, implementation of the health care law will come down to the business decisions made by health insurers and a relatively small pool of individuals shopping for insurance on the newly created exchanges. Neither the companies nor those individuals are likely to take their instructions from an advocacy group.
The most likely explanation, however, is that these groups are keeping their powder dry for the next election cycle. Wilner projects that between July 2013 and the spring of 2015, another $500 million will be spent on health care ads, the vast majority of which will come during the next election cycle. In short, there is more to come.
"We expect it to be a huge issue in the 2014 elections as well," she said.