The "not invincible" video contest promotion designed to hawk President Obama's health care law to young Americans may be arresting, even alarming, but most likely ineffective, two skeptical psychologists surmised.
"For a lot of young people, illness is a rumor. I'm not sure that scaring the bejesus out of people can get them to change their behavior," clinical psychologist Rosalind Dorlen of the Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J., said after ABC News described the general tactics used in some of the videos. "What it tends to do is cause people to turn off the TV."
In an attempt to attract the 2.7 million young people necessary to help make the Affordable Care Act a success, the beleaguered Obamacare team extended the voting deadline for a video contest designed to entice young Americans to enroll in health care coverage through the new exchanges. Voting wrapped up Monday night.
Uploaded entries depict accidental amputations, lightning strikes, car crashes and flat-lined EKGs. While many videos use humor to make their point, others show young people lying in hospital beds or cite distressing statistics, often augmented by foreboding music, which ABC News described to the psychologists.
Originally slated to end Oct. 15, the Healthy Young America Video Contest is the product of a partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Young Invincibles, a nonprofit that aims "to give young adults a voice in the health care debate."
Both hope to recruit healthy 18 to 35 year olds, who are likely to incur only negligible health care expenses, to offset the cost of caring for older, sicker registrants. The contest calls for submissions that convince young, healthy Americans they're "not invincible."
Young Invincibles Executive Director Aaron Smith said his Washington-based group partnered with the Department of Health & Human Services on the video contest "as a way to educate young adults, the country's most historically uninsured demographic, about their new affordable options under the Affordable Care Act."
"We believe the contest's invincibility theme is fun and creative and may inspire numerous opportunities for informative videos to go viral and reach young people," he added.
But some of the videos might inadvertently reinforce the notion of invincibility, especially in young people who assume that such statistics don't apply to them.
"The danger with scare tactics is that the individual pushes [the possibility of illness] further away, uses even more denial," health psychologist Steven Tovian of Highland Park, Ill., told ABC News.
The illusion of invincibility, informally dubbed the "not-me phenomenon," stems from the desire for what psychologists call an "internal locus of control," the feeling that one's own choices, not external factors like accidents or germs, determine fate.
Although the presumption of invincibility might seem foolhardy, mental health professionals believe it's actually adaptive in young adulthood.
"Invincibility may be developmentally necessary for the things that are required during [young adulthood]," Tovian said. "Starting out requires confidence, denial becomes a safety mechanism so that you can deal with other challenges" like launching a career or moving out of a parent's home.
Most health-conscious young people assume that if they do all the "right" things - exercising, eating healthy, avoiding cigarettes, practicing safe sex - they can insulate themselves against illness. Tovian calls it "the bravado of youth."
Psychologists suggest that rather than trying to combat such tendencies, the Obamacare team should capitalize on it, presenting an empowering message rather than a threatening one. This means emphasizing preventative care and increased insurer transparency.
Whether the "we're not invincible" theme triumphs won't be known until the winners are announced Nov. 15. Also unclear is the number of young "invincibles" who intend to purchase health insurance, given the recent healthcare.gov glitches.
The winner, who had to agree that the work can be used "in any media, worldwide," will get cash prizes of $1,500 to $5,000.
In the meantime, Tovian quipped, "a rationalization a day keeps the doctor away."