Edsel. Buckner. Ishtar. And Obamacare?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 21, 2013 – 3:01 pm

The Ford Motor Company introduced a new model with great fanfare in 1958: The Ford Edsel. It was a spectacular failure and was pulled from the market within three years. The dud cost the car manufacturer a whopping $350 million—more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

Red Sox fans watched in horror in 1986 as their first baseman, Bill Buckner, allowed a ball to dribble through his legs. His error cost Boston the World Series title.

Movie executives probably thought a Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy was a sure winner. But 1987’s “Ishtar” became one of film’s most notorious flops, barely grossing $14 million against a $55 million budget.

Today, all three of those words—”Edsel,” “Buckner,” and “Ishtar”—stand as single-word reminders of spectacular failures. The question now facing the Obama administration is whether the term “Obamacare” will join their ranks, not in reference to the policy itself, but rather to its botched rollout.

President Obama, aware of the poor rollout’s seriousness and the resulting threat to his namesake legislation, addressed the nation this morning from the White House Rose Garden.

He directly addressed the problems with Healthcare.gov, the website on which people were supposed to have been able to purchase their health insurance at the beginning of this month but which has been plagued with major technological problems. As a result, many people—some estimates suggest hundreds of thousands—have been unable to complete their applications.

From a crisis management perspective, he succeeded only partially. His upbeat message, which sought to put the website’s failure into a larger perspective, will provide some balance to the news coverage he receives.

But the event itself played more like a political rally, complete with “real people” standing behind Mr. Obama as he spoke. Instead of focusing primarily on the website’s dismal performance and his administration’s plan to fix it, he spent the majority of the event touting the Affordable Care Act’s virtues. Those virtues are an important part of the story, yes, but must be paired with credible information about what health insurance shoppers can reasonably expect, and when.

Even after the presidential speech, we still don’t know: How many people have successfully gotten health insurance through the online exchanges? How many have tried and failed? Will the exchanges have enough people in the insurance pool to make them work? When will insurance companies get accurate information about enrollees? And critically, when will the new system be up and running?

By failing to address those basic questions, viewers were left with an unmistakable impression that the numbers are bad—and that the administration doesn’t have a good idea when the website will be at full speed.


The 1958 Ford Edsel


Given that, here’s the question: Based on its poor rollout, will the term “Obamacare” eventually become another term to symbolize failure, alongside the Edsel, Buckner, and Ishtar? Perhaps a more fitting analogy will prove to be Broadway’s Spiderman, which was plagued by poor reviews, cast injuries, and set problems—which led to the longest preview period in Broadway history—but is now heading toward profitability and commercial success. 

Note: This analysis extends solely to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and does not comment on the merits of the policy itself.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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