“We didn’t have billions of dollars of commercials like some critics did.”

— President Obama, remarks in the Rose Garden, April 1, 2014

A reader asked us about this comment during the president’s victory lap on the Affordable Care Act. Were there really “billions” of dollars worth of commercials opposing the law?

Our initial reaction was that this was just a bit of presidential hyperbole. On the other hand, the president did make this assertion in a major speech. So let’s see what the data say.

The Facts

The best source for spending on political ads is Kantar Media Ad Intelligence, which closely tracks the numbers.

In July, Kantar announced that both opponents and proponents of the law were on track to spend $1 billion — by 2015.

As of  last summer, however, the spending amounted to $500 million, and that was based on tracking “more than $500 million in advocacy and campaign advertising referencing the health care reforms from the very first spots to air about the prospect of a law in 2009 up through Q2 2013.”

The organization noted that this included advertising that “would have happened in the course of regular campaigning.”

“If you are asking me, have billions of dollars been spent on ads attacking the ACA, the answer is no,” said Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence with oversight of its Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).  “Several hundred million dollars, yes. Really an unprecedented sum. But not billions.”

Wilner said that Kantar has not updated the numbers since then. But one of the biggest spenders on anti-Obamacare ads, the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, has spent $30 million since July on a relentless assault that has been closely fact checked in this column. But few others come close, so it hard to see how one gets to $1 billion in negative ads, let alone “billions.” The Kochs may be billionaires, but even they have not yet spent billions attacking the law.

Still, Kantar Media also noted that opponents outspent proponents by a ratio of five to one, so by now the anti-Obamacare ads probably amount to nearly $500 million. So maybe if you were on the receiving end of such a barrage, perhaps it felt like billions.

“The point made in the speech was that we have been vastly outspent, and that is more than backed up by the facts below, including the Kantar Media report showing we were outspent 5 to 1,” a senior administration official said.

Update: Stuart Stevens, a GOP political consultant who was senior strategist for the Mitt Romney campaign, tweeted that it was “odd” that The Fact Checker did not mention the fact the the federal and state governments have spent an estimated $700 million promoting the need for health insurance and HealthCare.gov. “The $700 million is building brand that’s defining product,” he said, comparing it to marketing budgets of major brands. “It’s a unified campaign.”

“The pitch: If you don’t make much money, the government can pick up some of the cost of your health insurance,” the Associated Press reported. “If you can afford a policy, by law you have to get one. People will be directed to HealthCare.gov, a government site, for more information.”

As it happens, Wilner in February compared AFP’s anti-Obamacare spending to what insurance companies spent on television advertising in the same time period, and found they were roughly equivalent. But she noted:

This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The anti-ACA political ad dollars and the ACA-driven product ad dollars aren’t necessarily being spent in the same ways. For starters, a fair amount of insurer dollars go to network advertising, whereas AFP and other political critics have concentrated their firepower on local broadcast. The messaging in all the political ads is sharply negative (“lie of the year,” “disaster,” “just isn’t working”), whereas the messaging in a typical insurer ad falls somewhere between less negative and neutral (“confusing,” “concerned”).

The Pinocchio Test

Clearly “billions” is incorrect, and such statements have a tendency to seep into the public discourse when made by a president. So they need to be corrected.

But we are willing to cut the president some slack here, though that may not please some of our readers. (Others may accuse us of nitpicking.) Opponents of the law have spent significantly more than proponents to discredit the Affordable Care Act — and the margin is so lopsided that the president might feel justified in inflating the numbers. But next time, Mr. President, stick to “half a billion” rather than billions — or focus on the ratio.

Two Pinocchios

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