Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Red Cross--A Great Brand For Healthcare, Not Just For Emergencies

Here at Serious Medicine Strategy, we read with great interest this article on the front page of The Washington Post "Style" section this morning. The piece is about the efforts of Red Cross chief Gail McGovern to revive the agency and, of course, to provide aid to Haiti.

But we couldn't help but gaze at those three oil paintings of Red Cross nurses in the article--shown above. Obviously they are part of a gallery within the Red Cross HQ in Washington. Now that's powerful branding. Those Red Cross women--the paintings all appear to be from the World War Two era--look both pretty and angelic, like nurses, mothers, sisters. Maybe even girlfriends.

And they have faces. If you want to build your brand, it helps to personify. We realize that advertising styles change, and that those sort of idealized images--think Betty Crocker, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima--have gone out of fashion. But the new fashion, showing celebrities, or logos of some kind, is not necessarily for the better, even from the point of view of the advertisers.

And oh yes, the Red Cross nurses wear uniforms. Uniforms convey a sense of ordered esprit and structured dignity and purpse--what Edmund Burke, recalling the chivalry of old Europe, called "proud submission." But the mobilizing idea can be just as easily applied to small "r" republican politics. Almost everyone is eager to serve the nation in some way, if he or she can find a good way to do so. And, no doubt, a way to look good doing so.

In other words, shifting to the current political argument, those Red Cross posters possess just about everything that Obamacare does NOT possess. In the past, we have noted that Obamacare lacks the "cool" of Apple and Silicon Valley. Well, it also lacks the class and elegance and solidarity of uniforms. Discussions of looks, and the look of things might seem like a small point to make, but it's actually a big point--there's a reason why, when nations want to get something done, they put men and women in uniform. And of course, the Obamans right now need all the help they can get; rethinking the failures of the last year, they should rethink every aspect of their program. And maybe learn from more successful Democratic presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who knew how to mobilize the country. Back in those days, uniforms were part of the package.

Suppose, for instance, someone had the task of visualizing Obamacare as it is today. What would be shown? Since we are talking about proponents for the moment, there would be no gag images of intensive care units. We know that Obamacare opponents would show people waiting in line, or grim-faced "death panels." But what would proponents show? One imagines that proponents would seek to present smiling children, grateful parents, and contented seniors. But what the Obamacare proponents would probably notshow would be the insurers--because it would be too easy to parody them in Kafka-esque terms. In other words, the central point of Obamacare--the people administering the program--cannot be shown, because they are too scary. That should tell us something about the way that Obamacare is pitched in the public mind.

Of course, our purpose here at SMS is not to argue for any one program. Instead, our goal is a better healthcare system and, more to the point, more cures. That's our only goal.

And so, in that spirit, some free advice for Republicans. Let's suppose that the Republicans had to illustrate their healthcare plan. What would they show? The big Republican healthcare themes--beyond opposition to Obamacare--are "freedom" and "choice." The word "freedom" is explicit in Sen. Jim DeMint's Health Care Freedom Act, and it is also loud and clear in the Patients' Choice Act, put forth by Sen. Tom Coburn,Rep. Devin Nunes and others.

But how does one visualize "freedom"? The word is hard to picture, which is why the word "freedom" is usually coupled, visually, with the flag, or Uncle Sam, or troops, or a monument, to give people something to visualize. But that's the point: If you want to rally people around healthcare give them a healthcare image--say, a Red Cross nurse. It requires something of a bank shot to say, "We will give you more freedom, and that will, in turn, give you better healthcare." If you want to drive home a healthcare message, make the message about health and medicine, not something abstract.

But in the meantime, the greatest icon of health ever created in America, the Red Cross, sits relatively fallow. It is, as they on Madison Avenue, an underleveraged grand. And yet it's possible to imagine, say, 50 or 75 years ago, that the Red Cross could have expanded into healthcare--both health insurance and medical research. There it would have sat as a sort of middle point, between bureaucrats on the one side, and health insurers on the other side. The road not taken. But that road is still there, waiting for someone to take it.

A Google search of "red cross posters" shows something interesting: most of the posters are old. They are beautiful and evocative. And so it's telling that the Red Cross seems to have peaked in its art half a century ago. It's not too late, Red Cross. You can go home again.

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