Ad Report Card: The Return of Harry and Louise

If you are interested in sorting through the heated debate over stem-cell research and cloning, there’s plenty out there to read and think about and debate. On the other hand, if that’s too much trouble, you could just watch a couple of ads and let someone else make up your mind for you, in 60 seconds or less. For instance, two commercials featuring the famous Harry and Louise characters from the 1993 assault on Clinton’s health-care reform can be viewed by clicking the stills below.

Harry and Louise, at it again The first ad: It’s morning in an American kitchen. There’s Louise, the middle-aged, no-nonsense wife, and here comes Harry, her mate, furrowing his brow at the newspaper. “What’s with this stem-cell research debate?” he asks.

“A lot of people in Congress have their facts confused,” Louise informs him, adding in an exasperated tone that “one bill puts scientists in jail for working to cure our niece’s diabetes.” Here the words “U.S. Senate Bill 1899” flash on the screen.

Harry, puzzled in the face of government stupidity, says, “So, cure cancer, go to jail?” Louise, in her disgust, sounds almost smug: “Alzheimer’s. Heart disease. Take your pick.” Harry, grasping to understand it all, asks, “Is it cloning?”

“No,” Louise replies, as if addressing a child. “It uses an unfertilized egg and a skin cell.” She confirms that the process doesn’t make babies, “just life-saving cures.”

“For that we go to jail?” Harry says, appalled. In answer Louise remarks: “We should log on and tell Congress. They can stop human cloning without stopping life-saving research.” The spot closes on the words “Stop Brownback-Landrieu” and gives the Web address of the sponsoring organization,

Louise and her niece roll out the hyperboles The second ad: Louise is back, this time with her niece. They’re collaborating on some sort of Martha Stewart-esque flower project, and actually, in her teal work shirt, Louise looks a lot like Martha. In any case, she warns her niece to “watch those thorns,” to which the girl replies that she takes her insulin shots everyday. Then she asks, “Why were you and Uncle Harry talking about going to jail?”

“Some people want to outlaw Americans using the most promising cures,” Aunt Louise says. “For my diabetes?” the waif asks.

“Lots of diseases. They use a bit of your skin and an egg cell. Scientists are working on it all over the world.” In light of this, the girl asks, couldn’t she simply go to Europe if scientists there develop a cure? Louise replies, “Your parents could go to jail.”

“Who’d pass a law like that?!” the child blurts out. This is just too much for Louise, who hugs the girl, closes her eyes, and whispers, “Oh, sweetie.” Again a closing-title screen reminds us of the targeted bill and the sponsor.

Stem cells and hard sells: Back in the world of regular, product-pushing commercials, you hardly ever see pitches this aggressive any more—subtlety, irony, seduction, and comedy have mostly replaced the full-on assault to bully the viewer. But political ads are different. They’re not efforts to build up a brand that will last decades: Instead there’s a clear finish line, like an election or a floor vote. And in political advertising, the goal often isn’t to make one’s own case—it’s to destroy the other side’s. Combine these two factors, and you have an excellent scenario for manipulation and oversimplification. And thus the return of Harry and Louise, lines like “Cure cancer, go to jail,” and the unlikely image of this fictitious little girl’s parents being thrown in the slammer.

I’m not here to sort out the ethics and science of cloning; I’m here to judge whether these are effective ads. They are ludicrous and almost laughable in their hyperbole, but they are also, in fact, effective. How can that be? Well, President Bush, among others, has demonstrated many times that in politics, you don’t necessarily get points for nuance. These ads seem to have taken that lesson to heart—and determined to out-oversimplify Bush himself. “Cure cancer, go to jail” may be a falsehood, but it’s also an effective slogan.

Amusingly, the spots have also apparently inspired a counterattack radio ad featuring a certain “Harriet and Louis.” Here’s a QuickTime audio link, and here’s the transcript. (The spot supports the above-mentioned bill and the president’s views and was produced by something called Stop Human Cloning, “Bill Kristol, Chairman.”)

Oh, and one postscript: The Harry and Louise characters, by the way, first appeared in ads put together by the Health Insurance Association of America (an insurance industry lobbyist) as part of the effort to torpedo health-care reform in the early 1990s—and those original ads are actually archived at HIAA has sued CuresNow for swiping the characters. Of course, the HIAA hasn’t taken a position one way or the other on the cloning bill. After all, that’s a complicated issue. But battling to keep control over mascots with a proven ability to manipulate? That’s a no-brainer.