"Harry and Louise have become the most visible icons of the health care debate," boasts Ben Goddard whose Goddard *Claussen/First Tuesday ad agency created the $10 million campaign for the Health Insurance Association of America.
"The research shows that America feels comfortable with the characters. They're people they'd like to sit down and chat with."
Ironically, the insurance industry doesn't appear anxious to have anyone sit down and talk to the actors who play Harry and Louise (and whose real first names were used in the commercial). The pair agreed to be interviewed only after repeated requests. Even then, an HIAA executive flew from Washington to Los Angeles to act as a chaperon.
It turns out that both Johnson, fortysomething, and Clark, 44, voted for Bill Clinton. Both strongly favor some form of health-care reform, but—like virtually all of their fellow citizens—neither has mastered the details of the Clinton package, or of any alternative. "I'm not an expert and I have not read, nor do I understand, the plan completely," says Clark, whose character in the commercials seems to devour a 1,342-page copy of the Clinton proposal as if it were a romance novel. (For the record, the real Harry and Louise are both covered by a generous insurance plan from the Screen Actors Guild.)
Clark, a divorced mother of two whose acting credits include commercials for Nissan and Excedrin, says that the primary goal of the health-care spots is to raise legitimate questions about the Clinton plan. "I don't see this as a negative campaign," she says.
For his part, Johnson, who is also divorced and whose diverse acting résumé includes parts in Law and Order. Columbo and Jake and the Fatman, says he took a laid-back approach to his role as an American Everyman. "I did a lot of research," he deadpans. "I went to Nebraska for a month and lived with a regular family, just like De Niro would."
Whatever the case, the commercials certainly caught the eye of President and Mrs. Clinton who, frustrated by the ads' success, decided to fight fire with satire. At last's month's annual Gridiron Dinner for the Washington press, the Clintons unveiled a taped parody of the Harry and Louise spots, featuring themselves in the title roles. The best moment of dialogue:
Hillary: "On page 27,655 it says eventually we are all going to die."
The President: "Under the Clinton health plan? You mean after Bill and Hillary put all those new bureaucrats and taxes on us, we're still going to die? Wow! I've never been so frightened in my life!"
The real Harry and Louise admit they were "amazed" to see Bill and Hillary portraying them. "I think they have a wonderful sense of humor," says Clark, "but I want to know why they're making fun of us and not answering the questions [raised in the ads]." The Clintons may have another chance: an HIAA spokesman says that while there are no definite plans now to tape more Harry and Louise commercials, "it's highly likely that could change."
Meanwhile, the real Harry and Louise say they're still getting feedback about the first batch. While some of Clark's more liberal friends have chastised her for appearing in them, Johnson's pals have been more supportive. "They're excited to see me on TV," the actor reports. "And they're glad I'm working."
LORENZO BENET and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles