During the campaign, Barack Obama promised his cheering crowds that, when he rolled up his sleeves to work on health care, he would have “insurance company representatives and drug company representatives at the table. They just won’t be able to buy every chair.” Now is the time to look at just what kind of seats special interest groups are having at Obama’s table and what they’re doing to bring the public around to their ways of thinking. This is the fourteenth of an occasional series of posts that will analyze their activities and how the media are covering them. The entire series is archived here.

Last week, The New York Times published a much-too-familiar story: special interests are flooding the airwaves with expensive ad buys in hopes of influencing the way ordinary folks view health care reform. The piece identified the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America—otherwise known as Big PhRMA—as “one of the biggest players in the debate in support of an overhaul.”

Big PhRMA supporting health reform? The companies that have driven up health care costs with their me-too drugs that aren’t any better than older, cheaper ones; that have encouraged consumers to demand expensive drugs to cure ailments they didn’t have before, like restless leg syndrome; that persuade doctors with note pads and golf outings to prescribe more costly drugs instead of cheaper generics; that don’t want consumers to buy cheaper drugs from Canada? What gives here? Have they had a sudden attack of noblesse oblige?

Alas, the Times gave readers a false impression of just what those clever drug companies have been up to. While cultivating a good guy image with the public—and the press—PhRMA has been working behind the scenes, making deals here and there with lawmakers to protect the industry’s considerable profits.

TV advertising has been the tool of choice in the public persuasion department, and PhRMA has used it with a vengeance. Last fall, PhRMA launched a mega-million PR blitz promoting the benefits of the free market, featuring TV talk show host Montel Williams. In one soft and subtle pitch, Williams said that everyone should have affordable health insurance, and that “doing what’s best for patients is what’s best for everyone.”

PhRMA also gave a front group called America’s Agenda: Health Care for Kids (PhRMA was the sole funder) $11 million to produce commercials thanking twenty-eight politicians for supporting expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. What better way to get the public on your side than to say you support insurance for kids? (Of course, dear reader, more insured kids also means mom and dad now can pay for medicines those kids need, which equals more sales.) In February, PhRMA, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Families USA, and the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network coughed up $10 million for thank-you ads aimed at eighty-three law makers. “Tell (your member) thanks for standing up for our kids,” advised the commercial, “and that now’s the time to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all.”

Then came July, and PhRMA’s three-week ad run that resurrected Harry and Louise, the infamous TV couple that helped sink the Clinton plan in 1994. This time, they supported reform, with Louise arguing for “a little more cooperation, a little less politics.” This campaign was a bit cheaper, only costing $4 million; Families USA was also a sponsor. “I think this is probably as powerful a symbol that anyone can imagine that shows why middle-class families need health care reform,” said Ron Pollack, who heads Families USA.

Two weeks ago, PhRMA linked up again with Pollack’s group, along with the AMA, the Federation of American Hospitals (the for-profit guys), and the SEIU. This uber-marketing coalition, calling itself Americans for Stable Quality Care, is touting Obama’s consumer protections and “quality, affordable care you can count on”—-those Democratic focus-grouped slogans that poll very, very well among the American public. The price of this ad buy: $12 million.

The thank-you note theme runs deep. Last Tuesday, PhRMA and Families took to the airwaves again—this time with a $3.5 million campaign in fifteen senators’ home states, thanking them for working across the political divide. The ads, which run through Labor Day, ask voters to call and thank their senators, and urge them to keep trying to find a way around the partisan gridlock. And there was Ron Pollack in an AP story that got a fair amount of pickup, this time saying: “We want to underscore for people in Montana how important is the work that Senator Baucus has been doing.”

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.