Helicopter parenting and the selling of Obamacare

Team Obama has famously resorted to an “angry mom” ad in the hope of inducing young adults to sign up for Obamacare. In the image that accompanies this post on the main page, a mother stands with her arms folded, looking none-too-amused. The caption reads, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll just wait here until you get #GetCovered.”

Is this ad likely to be effective? It depends on the nature of the young adults who haven’t enrolled in Obamacare.

There’s a school of thought, of which the estimable Michael Barone is probably the leader, that sees young Americans as unnatural targets for the nanny state. Having broken away from traditional media, they have created their own playlists and found their own ways to obtain information. They don’t like to be bossed and they have a strong libertarian streak.

Young people answering to this description are unlikely to be induced to sign up for the much-derided Obamacare insurance by the sight of an unhappy mom.

On the other hand, Team Obama’s track record with this cohort is quite good. Pajama Boy may not have worked, but Obama rolled up huge margins with the youth of America in two elections. The folks creating the Obamacare ads may not be the same ones who orchestrated the presidential campaigns (just as the Obamacare computer folks weren’t those used during the elections), but their ability to pitch to young Americans should not be discounted.

This article in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, which is interesting at several levels, helped me think about the effect the “angry mom” ad might have on its target audience. Angell looks at research about the modern relationship between parents and their children. Her focus is on upper-income parents, but she says that the phenomena observed by this research have trickled down to the lower classes.

In essence, according to the research Angell surveys, modern parenting is characterized first by extraordinary involvement with their children and second by extraordinary patience with them. “Young children seldom have to face a head-on No. Reprimands often end with ‘Okay?,’ as if they were the opening of a negotiation or assent were required.

The children become quite attached to their parents:

In many cases, they become such pals of their parents that they become helicopter children—hovering over their parents almost as much as their parents hover over them. I know people in their twenties who text their parents nearly every day from college, just to keep in touch.

Many parents, in turn, ape the culture of their children. Adults become “in a sense bilingual—able to speak ordinary English and also to converse with their children in their language.” They sometimes “remain pseudo-adolescents until they’re almost ready to retire.”

How will the “angry mom” ad likely play with young adults raised under the circumstances described by Angell? Team Obama wisely portrays the mom as patient. She isn’t explicitly demanding that her child do anything; she’s simply waiting for him/her to “do the right thing.” And the involvement of this “helicopter mom” in the decision will be viewed as natural, rather than resented.

Still, the mom, arms folded and with a slight scowl, seems pretty peeved, rather than friendly. And she isn’t negotiating, allegedly is the approach of choice for the modern parent. Instead, as John observed, she seems “bossy.”

Thus, to the extent that Angell’s article accurately describes the modern parent/child relationship, the ad “angry mom” ad seems slightly off-key.

There is also this Obamacare ad, in which the mothers of celebrities use a pretty hard sell (“do not give your mother a nervous breakdown”) as they attempt to guilt young adults — but presumably not their own rich and famous kids — into buying health insurance. This one strikes me as well off-key.

But as I said, Team Obama knows more about how to pitch the youth of America than I do.

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