If you're like most people, you didn't see the movie Sicko, director Michael Moore's disputatious cinematic argument for a national healthcare system. Judging from a new survey, however, chances are good that you heard about the film, and it may even have changed your opinion about the need for healthcare reform.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a healthcare research organization, this week released a poll of 1,500 adults conducted during the first week in August, about a month after the movie's release. At that time, only 4 percent of respondents had actually seen Sicko, but an additional 42 percent had heard or read about it. For a wonky topic that was vying with the likes of Evan Almighty for a summer night's entertainment, not a bad showing. "I was surprised that we found a substantial impact," says Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "It was almost entirely from the free media buzz rather than the small number of people who saw the movie."
Of people familiar with Sicko, 43 percent said the movie made them more likely to think that the U.S. healthcare system needs reform—liberals and conservatives both among them—and a little over a third said it swayed them to think that other countries do a better job. Twenty-seven percent said they were paying more attention to the presidential candidates' positions on healthcare after seeing or hearing about the film.
That's just what Michael Moore had in mind. The flame-throwing director of movies like Bowling for Columbine, about gun violence, didn't make Sicko for his health—though he says he lost 30 pounds during filming. Asked in an interview just before the film's release what could be done to persuade people to support a government-sponsored healthcare system, he said, "I hope the movie's a start."
That may be wishful thinking. Michael Moore's films are hardly the first to take aim at American industry or institutions. How strong is movies' hold on audiences once the theater lights came up? "There's very little evidence I've ever seen that movies move public opinion in any measurable way," says Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, which analyzes and reports trends in media and public policy, among other things.
But such films often influence public debate about an issue, especially one that's already perceived as important, say experts. Polls have repeatedly shown that healthcare is Americans' No. 1 domestic concern. "The movie and the surrounding media coverage can have the effect of keeping the topic active for a long period of time," says Joseph Cappella, professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, who analyzes how media communicate about healthcare issues and the impact that has on attitudes and behavior. "It can affect what's on people's minds and what they're looking for the presidential candidates to talk about." If Sicko encourages consumers to ask the candidates tough questions, that could be a shot in the arm for healthcare reform.