By Samantha Papadakis. A version of this post originally appeared on Making Noise. 

In recent weeks, scholars, pundits, politicos, and just about everyone else in between has chimed in and shared their opinion on why Obamacare is failing miserably. Of course it all started with the wonderful policymakers and the complex weave of a mess they wove. And the vendors! That government procurement process! And lest we forget the elephant in the room… the tech issues (which were particularly frustrating, especially for young Americans, coming from the very man who won an election driven by technology).

Those technological and political failures can’t be ignored. But let’s put those aside for now and focus on a much less discussed failure: the failure to go live without an effective marketing strategy to win the hearts and minds of young Americans. Those oh-so-needed but not-so-courted group of Young Invincibles who are vital to the program’s ultimate success.

The Marketing Fail

If we look past the troubles with enrollment numbers specifically, a harsher reality exists: young Americans aren’t necessarily sold on the idea as a whole. The media coverage has shown that young Americans overwhelmingly don’t see the value. Why pay the premiums when it’s less expensive to just pay the penalty? Shortsighted economics and health realities seem to trump the long-term benefits (not that that’s right, but it’s what we’re seeing).

Think about it: how many people do you know that rushed to enroll? Of the 7 million people that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would enroll through 2014, about 38% of the total was expected to be between the ages of 18 and 34. So far, of the states reporting, 19% of enrollees in Kentucky are age 18-34, while in Connecticut and Washington state, the figures are 22% and 23%, respectively. The Young Invincibles did the mental math and decided to pass.


Which is precisely why, armed with nothing more than a $5,000 budget (and website that makes look sharp), more young Americans are familiar with the brotastic #GotInsurance campaign than the details of Obamacare itself.

You’ve seen them. You’ve cringed. They’re bad—even for the most progressive among us. Bros doing kegstands. A young woman rejoicing about “easy access.” Spoiled twenty somethings racking up charges on their parents’ credit cards. [For those not yet familiar, take a look for yourselves.]

But between that cringe and eye roll, you probably laughed. And maybe even related to it. Because when you looked past the cliché imagery and crass copy, you realized something: it’s funny cause it’s true.

At a time when the US government should have been dominating my newsfeed, this small, underfunded, unknown group led the way.

Why’s this?

Simply put, these small, budget-less, special interest groups demonstrated a deeper understanding of how to use the Internet to get the word out than the Digital Marketer in Chief himself.

Millennial By Design

The Thanks Obamacare! campaign was perfectly millennial by design: responsive to real-time events, honest (cough, articulating actual benefits of the program, regardless of how silly they were framed), and fueled by social media. In less than a day, the #GotInsurance images had flooded my Facebook and Twitter feeds through a combination of a lean paid media budget and massive peer-to-peer sharing.

Rather than talking dollars and cents—which most young Americans either don’t have, or aren’t saving responsibly anyways—the ads put the benefits of Obamacare into the context of millennials’ lives…with a funny twist. They deployed all the essential components of shareworthy content—entertainment, relatablity, humor—and deployed it on the platforms that young Americans frequent most.

So what did we learn?

For starters, if you build it, they might not come—no matter how smart, useful, or healthy it may be. Just as seasoned marketers like Coca Cola, Apple, and Nike know all too well, you have to make someone want it. You have to paint a story and a create a lifestyle someone can picture themselves in and rally behind.

You do that by tapping into what you know this audience wants. Go no further than Google to render over 4 million results in 0.11 seconds on millennials, most of which are generalizations, but nonetheless have traces of truth.

The Truth: Millennials want a better future…for themselves and their peers.
The Challenge: How could a system built on preventive care make us healthier and happier in the long run?

The Truth: Millennials want the empowerment of making their own choices, while being validated by their peers.
The Challenge: How do the exchanges created by Obamacare enable this freedom of choice and reveal market trends?

 The Truth: Millennials want a transparent government and accountable businesses.
The Challenge: How might the requirements of Obamacare create greater transparency and hold the corporate world accountable to the interests of consumers?

The road ahead for Obamacare will be bumpy, especially without the buy in (literally) of millions of young Americans. Obama appealed to millennials, quite successfully, on the road to the White House. Let’s hope he’s able to do so again with Obamacare, and soon. We may feel invincible, but we sure aren’t getting any younger.