January 5, 2002 - National Journal: Marketing Master Bill Novelli sold the Peace Corps in the 1970's

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Marketing Master Bill Novelli sold the Peace Corps in the 1970's

Read and comment on this excerpt from a story from the National Journal on marketing expert Bill Novelli who pioneered "social marketing" in the early 1970's when he worked to sell the Peace Corps at:

AARP's new direction *

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AARP's new direction

Jan 5, 2002 - National Journal Author(s): Serafini, Marilyn Werber



"AARP has had a certain sense of complacency. We need to do something about that."

On September 12, the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the nation's largest advocacy group for the elderly put its lobbying campaign for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients on hold. "We stopped our legislative agenda, [and] it's basically been frozen since," said AARP's new leader, marketing whiz Bill Novelli. Novelli, who became AARP's executive director in June, cancelled big plans for the fall. No more grassroots lobbying, no hot-air balloon events to publicize soaring drug costs, and no more long nights monitoring action on Capitol Hill.

This year, however, with congressional election campaigns in full swing, Novelli says that his group will aggressively remind lawmakers that prescription prices are still high, that millions of seniors have no help with those costs, and that the problem is getting worse. "We're going to go in for the biggest possible package that we can," said Novelli. "We're going to go for it."

Novelli acknowledges that the challenges will be great. "Everything has changed," he said. "We had a war, a recession, and a tax cut. The question now is whether there will be money for this and whether Congress can do anything."

Members of Congress who want to add a prescription benefit to Medicare have a question for Novelli, too: Can he fire up his organization to lobby effectively for a drug benefit? Before September 11, AARP's new leader had begun sending messages about how the organization would work under his leadership. The 35 million- member AARP, after more than a decade of cautious and sometimes muted advocacy on behalf of the elderly, was gearing up to make its presence felt once again.

Traumatized for years by its high-profile support of a 1988 Medicare law so despised by seniors that it was repealed the next year, AARP is intent on recapturing some of the clout-and energy-it seemed to have lost in the 1990s. "AARP has had a certain sense of complacency. We need to do something about that," admits Novelli. "What we're going to do is keep pushing the envelope." Even in light of the new economic realities, he says.

There's some talk that President Bush will include money in his fiscal 2003 budget proposal for a prescription benefit, but the amount is expected to be considerably less than the $300 billion that some activists were hoping for last year. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., recently told a group of health care lobbyists that the prescription drug issue will be "critical for Republicans" in 2002. One of those addressed added that "$300 billion was the number [Hastert] was using." Some other health care lobbyists are still doubtful about that much money being authorized. With limited funds, the debate may focus increasingly on lowering drug prices through discounts and making sure that generic alternatives get to the marketplace in a timely manner.

"People don't believe there's enough money to give a Medicare benefit, and that's what opens the price-control issues. We're never passing price controls, but if the government is involved in paying for drugs, it would be getting very big discounts," said Robert Blendon, a professor of health care policy at Harvard University's School of Public Health. Blendon sees a movement toward discounts, but not toward the private-- company discount cards that President Bush wants. "What is going to be politically acceptable for seniors is a discount .... They get discounts on movies, airlines. That's not price controls.

The government does not set it."

A more appealing option to Republicans than price controls may be to change patent rules. Congress may choose to reopen the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act of 1984-better known as the Hatch-Waxman Act.

Adding a Medicare prescription drug benefit will be AARP's priority this year.

Hatch-Waxman established standards for approving generic drugs and for extending the patents on prescription drugs. It was intended to strike a balance between promoting innovation (guaranteeing brand- name drugmakers a certain number of patent years) and ensuring that consumers have timely access to lower-cost generic medicines (guaranteeing generic drugmakers that patents would eventually expire).

With the pressure on to reduce drug prices for seniors, many members of Congress-including Republicans-are warming to the idea of closing loopholes that have allowed brand-name companies to delay the introduction of generics.

Novelli acknowledges that there will be a greater focus this year on prices and patents. Though AARP supports the idea of discount cards, Novelli cautions that movement in this direction should not rule out adding an actual prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Since September 11, AARP has been conducting consumer research and sharpening its plans for when the congressional agenda again turns to domestic issues. The group is planning an extensive lobbying push and grassroots campaign for January-to put pressure on Bush to advocate a drug benefit in his upcoming State of the Union address and to include money for it in his fiscal 2003 budget proposal.

We can truly go national [as] we were not able to do in the past"

The 60-year-old Novelli is considered a pioneer in "social marketing"-the art of changing people's views and behavior through marketing techniques. "He's an exceptional leader. He has the capability of seeing the big picture and pushing an organization to think boldly," said Matthew Myers, the president of the National Center for Tobacco-- Free Kids, better known as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Novelli, who designed the campaign and was its first president, is credited with significantly increasing public awareness of the problem of underage smoking. In 1996, he created a series of hard-hitting advertisements that played off the old `Joe Camel" and "Marlboro Man" ads.

"It was the first time the public health community used paid ads to promote its policy agenda," Myers said. "It helped frame the debate, and helped make this new organization an important voice in the debate."

Members of Congress who still hope to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare want Novelli to bring the same kind of bold direction to AARP that he has to other causes. "It would be helpful if AARP would be assertive in taking positions. It's been really frustrating on the prescription [drug] proposal. They're supportive- lukewarm about everything that comes out," complained a key Senate Democratic aide. "If they would just take a stand, we could know where they are."

AARP already was hinting at a bolder direction before September 11 paralyzed the prescription drug debate. As members of Congress left town for their August recess last summer, the Senate Finance Committee's efforts to create a consensus Medicare bill had broken down. Five committee members-Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah; John Breaux, D-La.; and James M. Jeffords, I-Vt.-had unveiled their own prescription drug plan, without the backing of committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. An angry Baucus immediately made it clear that he would not bring their bill to the panel for a vote.

During August, committee Republicans invited Baucus to resume bipartisan discussions, but the chairman declined.

With an important and politically charged issue at stake, some Senators were hoping that AARP would step in to help jump-start the deliberations. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the most-senior Democrat behind Baucus on the committee, told Novelli that strong leadership from AARP, including some clear indications of what legislative provisions would be acceptable to its members, could bring the lawmakers back to productive discussions.

Novelli didn't need any prodding. "We'll keep recommending more and more specifics as we go along," Novelli told National journal at the time. "Equally as important, we are going to educate and engage our members. This is not going to be hard, because we know very well that our members really, really want this. They don't get revved up about campaign finance reform. They know what this is." Novelli said that AARP might eventually craft its own outline of a bill, if that became necessary.

In the meantime, AARP established an office in every state capital- forming a comprehensive grassroots network. "We can truly go national in a way that we were not able to do in the past. Few groups are able to do that," said an energized John Rother, whom Novelli has promoted from director of legislation and public policy to director of policy and strategy. Some of AARP's state offices can mobilize 30-memher staffs, plus volunteers.

"If there's no action in the Congress, I think there will be consequences in the elections," Rother said.

If Congress does not pass a Medicare bill, Novelli and Rother say that AARP will not hesitate to work against selected lawmakers. AARP doesn't endorse candidates, but the group's strategy during the 2000 election was to get candidates to pledge support for prescription drug legislation-and then publicize their promises. The strategy for the 2002 election will be to hold members of Congress accountable for those prom\ises. "Now we'll see if people acted to fulfill their commitments," Rother said.


Novelli has a long history of making things happen. "People look at Bill and they see him taking the reins with a sense of commitment to be more aggressive and timely," said Chris Jennings, the president of Jennings Policy Strategies Inc., and a former Clinton health care policy adviser. "He has a history of being someone who does get things done. He doesn't have a job to have a job." Novelli says AARP is a perfect fit. "The thing I've always been really interested in is social change. To apply marketing communications to health and social change."

Novelli, a native of Bridgeville, Pa., started his professional career at Unilever, a worldwide packaged-goods marketing company, where he promoted detergents, fabric softeners, toothpaste, and "other sexy stuff." Then he joined a big New York ad agency, now defunct, called Wells, Rich, and Greene, where he pushed kids' cereals and pet foods. "I was completely in this career in marketing," he said.

Then came his eye-opener. In 1969, the agency put Novelli to work on an account for the Public Broadcasting System. It was the first time that PBS had hired an ad agency to help build an audience for public television. The first thing Novelli did was to attend a press conference by the creator of Sesame Street. He says that's when he realized that marketing could be used to sell something other than cat food and detergent. "Here's a woman selling ideas, selling education. And so, kind of a lightbulb went off," he said.

He's been selling ideas ever since. He did it for the Peace Corps in the early 1970s. "Developing countries were saying, `Hey, we love you, but could you send us a few less art history majors, and could we get some plumbers and MBAs, and some nurses?' " So Novelli repositioned the Peace Corps to attract skilled people, not just 22- year-old college grads. He placed articles in professional publications to reach out to nurses and MBAs, and advertised in agricultural trade publications for farming experts. He set up exhibits at conferences and arranged for speeches to professional groups.

Novelli can see "the big picture" and push "an organization to think boldly."

After the Peace Corps, Novelli spent nine months working on President Nixon's re-election campaign. He and other aides conducted research and focus groups that Novelli says went beyond the kind of polling that was then commonplace. "A lot of this is garden-variety thinking today." he said.

Following the 1972 campaign, he co-founded Porter Novelli, now a public relations giant. (In the early 1980s, AARP was one of his clients.) Novelli says he's particularly proud of an education campaign on high blood pressure he championed for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in 1973. "It's still considered, I think, the most successful national health-- promotion program in the country. It had a profound effect on the disease.

He conducted extensive research to identify the people with undiagnosed high blood pressure and to determine what steps they would be willing to take to combat their disease. "You can't offer things that people are not going to accept," he said. Novelli called it a "push-and-- pull" strategy. "We pushed down through the medical system by persuading doctors and nurses to detect high blood pressure by taking patients' blood pressure and treating it aggressively." There were lots of articles in professional publications. He also helped initiate a consumer campaign, using ads and other techniques, to "pull" people to ask their doctors to test their blood pressure.

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