Obama and the millenials: the Frank Underwood approach

By Marie-Noëlle Morency

I am a huge fan of House of cards. The overenthusiastic, unstoppable, binge-watching kind of fan. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I learned this week that the final installment of the series would be released on February 27th. But my post is not about my incurable addiction to Netflix series. The announcement made me think of the White House, and then I remembered the #Getcovered campaign, aimed at promoting Obama’s legacy-defining health care reform ‘’The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’’, also called Obamacare, to young adults.

The program, designed to provide to more Americans an access to affordable health insurance, had a slow start in terms of enrollment, especially with the 18 to 34 year old target group. This is a tough crowd to reach, as according the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, 27.2% of Americans 19 to 25 were uninsured, compared with 15.4% for the overall population.

We already know how successful Obama was using digital communications to convince the voters to make him the 44th President of the United States. As the New York Times reported at the time :

One of the many ways that the election of Barack Obama as president has echoed that of John F. Kennedy is his use of a new medium that will forever change politics. For Mr. Kennedy, it was television. For Mr. Obama, it is the Internet.

Seeing the March 31st deadline approaching and the low number of young people signing up, the Obama administration launched the #GetCovered campaign, a multi-platform digital marketing campaign, that Frank Underwood himself would certainly have vetted because of its aggressive, feisty, can’t-be-missed qualities.

The administration promoted the hashstag #getcovered heavily on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, driving people to share and remind each other to enroll. The campaign really took off when celebrities like Kerry Washington or Alyssa Milano associated with the campaign. They also promoted the hashstag #yourmomcares, to support the First Lady as she reached out to celebrity moms.

On Pinterest:


On Instagram:


On Twitter:



On Youtube:

Now, these tactics make up for a pretty standard, textbook social media campaign. Plenty of brands and organizations leverage the popularity of celebrities to give their campaign a boost (Ice-bucket challenge, anyone?).

But the Obama administration took that strategy one step further. To help Obama spread the message further, his team produced a video featuring YouTube personalities and digital influencers who talk during a summit-like event of the importance for young people to visit HealthCare.gov. The video got his share of views, but I found that the overall content lacked in authenticity and focus.

But this is where things get a little strange. On March 11, Obama appeared on Between Two Ferns, a web talk show hosted by popular Zach Galifianakis, who interviews stars with the irreverent humour that made him famous. The whole thing is of course awkward to say the least, but there is a guilty pleasure in watching Obama answering all of these silly questions. The dynamic between the two makes the interview riveting, and Obama does have plenty of room to plug his message.  Some observers, like Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, critiqued Obama for this choice of venue, arguing that ”this kind of display is beneath the dignity of the office”.   The video nonetheless garnered a massive number of views on Youtube (5.7M views) and on the channel Funny or Die (22M views).

Bold and brilliant? Or over the top and worthless? Does the end justifies the means? Watch for yourself:

According to the Obama’s administration, the #Getcovered campaign was largely successful, getting over 7 million new signups. They certainly went out of their way to reach out to young Americans. But what must today’s organizations and governments do to strike a chord with hyperactive and easily distracted millennials, especially on topics as dry and complex as health insurance?  Is inducing guilt feelings over the concern of your mother an efficient approach? Does a president or a CEO need to appear on goofy and absurd online shows to get his point across?

Maybe boldness is more than ever an essential quality brands and organizations must cultivate to be relevant and impactful today. Frank Underwood would say : ”There is but one rule. Hunt or be hunted”. Did I tell you how much I love House of cards?


7 thoughts on “Obama and the millenials: the Frank Underwood approach

  1. Julie

    Original and thought-provoking. I saw the value of including rather than just referring to the media, especially the Obama interview. Your call to action on that and your pertinent questions at the end especially make for satisfying reading. Thanks!


  2. Julie

    Oh yeah — meant to say that the article and title refer to Frank Underwood. I don’t watch that show! Maybe I’m not your intended audience, but it sounds like a clever connection that a few words of explanation up top would have made clearer.


  3. Annabelle Olivier

    Good job Marie-Noëlle. And yes, I do think it’s smart to go where your audience is watching (even if it’s an odd online show) it shows you’re in tune to them so they’re much more likely to listen. Also I have no objections to guilt-tripping my kids. It’s called payback for all the stuff they put me through or will put me through!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Victor Guerra

    This is a very interesting case, and I liked your approach!

    For me, the Obamacare was not a successful campaign, but it clearly shows the importance of the Voice of your Brand.

    The audience and the media might be the same, but the brand voice has changed: One thing is to speak as a presidential candidate who impersonates the attribute “Hope” and another, quite different, to speak as a President after wear and tear from years of making hard and unpopular decisions.

    As Francis Underwood would say: “Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it”.


  5. I love the Funny or Die concept. Instead of a thumbs up or thumbs down, that in and of itself is very clever.

    I think Barack has been THE BEST EVER in reaching out to youth through the channels THEY want to listen with.


  6. I really enjoyed your blog post, Marie-Noelle. I find your writing structured and focused, with clear visual content to illustrate your point. A very informative blog post. (Leslie)


  7. Marc Roth

    Great example of using social media channels to reach an audience that traditional media won’t necessarily meet. That said, I’m personally not sure that a YouTube celebrity telling me to get insurance would work, nor watching a comedy (?) short with the President incite me to buy a plan. Interesting choices, maybe I am getting too old to appreciate the ‘way-outside-the-box’ ways of delivering a message to youth!


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