The Truth behind Zack Galifianakis’ Obama Interview

March 13, 2014
between two ferns interview

Want to know the truth about Zack Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” interview with President Obama? Here’s one PR guy’s take on why it was done and whether it makes sense.

Was it funny?
Yes. It was very funny. The humor comes from the President of the United States taking swipes at Zack Galifianakis’ performances in one of movie makings’ most guttural movie series. The racist depiction of Asians. The drug use. The strippers. The obscenity. The guns. It’s so out of place next to the President of United States that it’s counter contextual, funny, and made even funnier by Galifianakis seeming willingness to jab the world’s most powerful man, even as Galifianakis winds up the foil of the bit.

Was it scripted? 
Come on. Don’t be naive. I can’t believe people are even asking this. Not only was it scripted but every word was carefully crafted to make the President appear contemporary and hip. PR machines managed every detail, as well they should. That’s their job!

Was it a big get for Galifianakis?
Sure. The guy play-acted with the President. But it probably fell in his lap. No doubt, the entire thing was arranged by The Administration in an attempt to reach young people, that desperately needed demographic that so far has ignored The Administrations’ plea to sign up for The Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Did it work? 
According to The Administration, the appearance proved to be the single largest driver of traffic to www.healthcare.gov. Curious, though, that The Administration only released traffic numbers. Not conversions and sign ups. As marketers, we all know how that game works. We will have to see whether this mounting effort has any long-term impact. My guess? Every little bit helps as part of a larger campaign and this will eventually swing the numbers. But without transparency into the real numbers, it’s impossible to say whether it worked in the short term, which was probably its real intent.

Did it fail on any level? 
When the President went into the hard sell, the intent of the piece became obvious and preachy. It should have been less blatant and more insidious. One idea — drive viewers to a micro-site of images of Galifianakis paling around the President for the day and designed to further engage this demographic by allowing them to drill down, learn more, and move forward on a digital path to purchase rather than simply pushing them to the same old, same old of www.healthcare.gov. Engagement was missing here.

Was it a waste of Presidential time? 
No. The only way to assure the success of The Affordable Care Act is to get young people to sign up in order to finance the costs of older Americans who use more health care. In this respect, it was a smart investment of time.

Did it demean the office of the President?
It would have in the past. But today, we expect our Presidents to be more contemporary and accessible.   So many American tax dollars have been invested in ACA, and so much healthcare infrastructure has already been redirected under the new laws, that the President is obligated to do all in his power to protect taxpayer’s investment and do what he thinks is right for American healthcare. Whether you are for or against ACA, there is no debate that its failure would be a colossal waste of dollars and risk infecting a slowly healing American economy.

What does it tell us about marketing and communications?
More than anything, the need for President Obama to make this appearance illustrates the challenge all marketers face. It’s not easy to change behavior or to sell a product to sophisticated consumers, especially young consumers, who I believe are the most discriminating consumers the world has ever seen. They are rightly skeptical and suspicious and can easily sniff out the con or bad deal through their social networks and technical know-how.

The marketing of healthcare insurance is made even more difficult by its very nature. Intangible and hypothetical, it’s valueless to a demographic that believes in their own immortality and is unwilling to pay for something they might never need. These are the consumers who will never buy cable or a newspaper, having divined how to download or view it for free. These are consumers who command billions of dollars of free IT infrastructure simply by accessing their preferred social networks. They can’t be sold easily or simply told what to do. They have to be marketed to with real effort, consistency, investment, science, creativity and yes, a willingness to explore and exploit new channels. And hey, that’s something we as marketers and public relations professionals share with the President and can emphasize with him in his willingness to try every and anything to sell a product to the American people.

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