BOB GARFIELD: Had it not gone down in the record books as one of the most watched moments in TV history -- and TiVo gets some credit for that, Super Bowl halftime 2004 might have been remembered as the focus of another flap over broadcast standards, namely the controversy over an anti-Bush administration ad produced by Moveon.org and rejected by CBS. (The network says its policy is not to air advocacy ads.) But scarcely had that tiff died down when another controversial ad started grabbing headlines. This time the sponsor is the U.S. government, and the subject is Medicare. [CLIP FROM AD PLAYS]
WOMAN: So how is Medicare changing?
WOMAN: It's the same Medicare you've always counted on, plus more benefits -- like prescription drug coverage.
MAN: Can I keep my Medicare just how it is?
WOMAN: Yes. You can always keep your same Medicare coverage.
WOMAN: Will I save on my medicines?
WOMAN: You can save with Medicare drug discount cards, this June, and save more with prescription coverage in 2006.
MAN: So my Medicare isn't different -- it's just more.
WOMAN: Right. And you can learn more. Call 1-800-Medicare.
BOB GARFIELD: The spot is part of a 12.6 million dollar ad campaign that hit the airwaves this week, and it comes just two months after Congress narrowly passed a major overhaul of the Medicare system.
EDWARD KENNEDY: There is nothing in the Medicare television ad that helps our seniors understand the real implications of that bill.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator Edward Kennedy, who led the charge against the Medicare legislation, is once again at the forefront of the assault against the new advertising campaign.
EDWARD KENNEDY: Clearly, it's improper, and clearly it's outrageous to use Medicare beneficiaries' money for campaign sloganing, and that's what this is all about.
BOB GARFIELD:That's what Kennedy told us. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of course doesn't see it that way. Joining me now to discuss the Medicare ad campaign is William Pierce, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. Bill, thanks for joining me.
WILLIAM PIERCE: Bob, thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: So what are you hoping that viewers will take away from this ad?
WILLIAM PIERCE: Well, it's really very simple. Our objective is what it has been for the last two years in the ad campaign we've been running. We've had a 1-800 Medicare ad campaign, and that is to provide seniors with a little bit of information, but then to drive them towards our 1-800 number so they can call and get more information. The previous campaign we knew from our surveys seniors didn't know as much about the Medicare program as they could have known, and therefore weren't using the benefit as much as possible--
BOB GARFIELD:And it's certainly not unusual for the federal government to advertise to explain the services that are out there. The Internal Revenue Service does it every single year.
WILLIAM PIERCE: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So let's talk timing. The--
WILLIAM PIERCE: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: -- provisions of this law don't really kick in for two years. What is the benefit, if not political advantage, of advertising the changes now?
WILLIAM PIERCE: Actually, one of the benefits kicks in this June, and that's a discount drug card, so this ad mentions the discount drug card. And then there are other benefits which will actually kick in next year, in 2005, and those include things like a first-time annual physical for people entering Medicare. This year, you have a change in a program which really hasn't changed much over its 38 year history, so we want to take the time we have to get to as many seniors as we can so they understand or at least know where they can go for more information.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay, fair enough. But there are critics on the left and on the right who say that the timing of this ad is not about informing seniors except to inform them about what the Bush administration has done for you, and they charge that it's a waste of taxpayers' money in order to give President Bush a political advantage in an election year. How plead you?
WILLIAM PIERCE: Interesting that they would say that. Congress also, in addition to passing the Medicare law, gave us money to implement and educate seniors about the new legislation. I think what mostly you're seeing certainly from the left is a very cynical attack that frankly is in, in kind of poor taste. I don't know if they're trying to scare seniors away from this or they're afraid that seniors will find out what this program is about. I'm not quite sure of the motivation.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, if it's motivated by cynical politics, how would you explain the objections of the National Taxpayers Union which is a right wing organization that is itself urging the administration to yank the ads?
WILLIAM PIERCE: Interestingly enough too, I might mention, I spent a year working for the National Taxpayers Union. They have always had a long tradition against, you know, government spending. They were a balanced budget group. So I think their motivation is more simply the fact that we're spending money on the campaign itself. And again, I would argue strongly that the responsible thing to do here is the education of seniors. We owe it to them to tell them what these benefits are and try to get 'em to call the 1-800 number.
BOB GARFIELD: Before I leap to take your remarks at face value, [LAUGHTER] I'm going to just mention something that raised my eyebrows--
WILLIAM PIERCE: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: -- and that is that the ad campaign is being managed, the media buy, by an outfit called National Media.
WILLIAM PIERCE: Mm-hm.
BOB GARFIELD:This is a political advertising firm which, coincidentally enough, has among its clients President Bush's re-election campaign. Shouldn't I be concerned about that?
WILLIAM PIERCE: No. National Media has been doing the ad buy, and that's all they literally do is buy the media time. When a firm like National Media buys lots of media for lots of clients, therefore they get good discounts. So we're getting a good bang for our buck for the American taxpayer. They've been doing this campaign for three years. No one has said a word for the last two years about National Media's role. Interestingly enough, also, I might point out Ketcham Communications is the firm which is managing the entire account for us. One of their senior vice presidents, a guy named Chuck Dolan, is on Senator Kerry's Finance Committee. We haven't heard anybody complaining about that. So, again, this is just cynical politics. I think when people see this ad, they'll see this is as a simple, straightforward, tradition cookie-cutter ad that you can see out there.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Bill. Thanks very much.
WILLIAM PIERCE: Thank you, Bob. It was a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:William Pierce is deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He spoke to us from Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the criminal element in cyberspace, and why the early coverage of the president's budget didn't add up.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR.