Christopher Reeve's credibility connects for disability insurer

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MARKETER: HealthExtras
AGENCY: Focused Image, Alexandria, Va.
RATING: Three stars

Ok, so HealthExtras, a supplemental health-and-disability insurer, wants an endorser to scare the daylights out of the public.

First of all, he's got to be famous, duh. A movie star is always a good choice. Not a James Whitmore-is-he-really-still-alive? formerly famous almost-star, but a genuine, bona fide matinee idol. A gorgeous one. Gorgeous is very important, in addition to well-liked. No Tom Arnolds or Sean Penns, please. This needs to be a famous, extremely attractive, well-liked movie star. Oh, and quadriplegic.

The ideal endorser should really be famous, attractive, well-liked and paralyzed below the neck from a totally unforeseen tragedy. But who?

Let's see . . . ummmm . . .

Christopher Reeve!

Of course! Superman! The hunkiest of hunks. Nicely famous and famously nice. And, if memory serves, confined to a wheelchair with a catastrophic spinal cord injury sustained in a riding accident. Talk about opportunity! Moreover, he's apparently not all that obsessed with the "dignity" thing. Didn't he star in a Super Bowl spot for a tax-free bond fund, or some such? That's the beauty part. Anybody can be a victim of tragedy, but his victimhood is for rent!

For instance, as the series of three b&w, documentary-style HealthExtras spots opens, he has apparently just finished talking about his initial thoughts of suicide.

"To learn that you will have a life . . . ," he continues, "and that the people around you still love you and need you . . . that, that's the first big breakthrough. . . . But, having made that breakthrough . . . and decided it's worth staying around . . . you still have the problem of . . . how are we going to make ends meet?"

Then the endframe and voice-over: "Even if you have health insurance, you need HealthExtras."

The second thought is similarly blunt, about the randomness of tragedy. And if that doesn't frame the issue quite emphatically enough, there's the third:

"Even when things seem terribly, terribly bleak . . . and you think, `Oh, I've, I've, you know, failed now. . . . I can't be a husband, I can't be a father, I can't do things.' . . . You find out that really you haven't, as long as you're there. . . . It seems to me that if you don't provide adequate coverage . . . by enrolling in a plan like HealthExtras . . . that's when you've failed them."


Ouch and oh, my. We were ready to be disgusted, but that's actually a pretty persuasive argument--from someone who knows whereof he, haltingly, speaks. Which is pretty much the definition of suitability for celebrity endorsements, isn't it? Relevance. If the essential idea is to have a spokesman whose image--whose meaning to the consumer--coincides with that of the brand, Christopher Reeve is truly the perfect fit.

His sudden, catastrophic medical condition is precisely the sort covered by this policy, and financial preparedness is an issue with which he is all too intimately aware. Reeve's gold-plated medical coverage was exhausted in less than three years.

So, tempting as it is, after his role in the grotesque and exploitive Nuveen investments commercial, to sneer at his participation here, the sneer quickly evaporates under the weight of his credibility--and, by the way, of his performance. His remarks were semi-scripted, but elicited in a documentary interview format that makes them seem conversational and spontaneous. The effect is heightened by the rhythm of his speech, which is measured in equal bursts as determined by the compressions of his ventilator.

Reeve has found a way to work with this respiratory metronome, and the cadence it imposes, to cultivate a soothing steadiness. Yet he sounds not at all robotic or monotonous. On the contrary, he is quite vivid in each burst, using his actor's command of tone and expression to charm, to touch, to persuade.

If two commercial campaigns lead to a third campaign, and a fourth, then maybe we'll resume our scorn for the commercialization of personal tragedy. Nobody wants to see the man's affliction turned into a cottage industry, and nobody wants to watch Christopher Reeve in a one-man freak show. But in this particular campaign from Focused Image, Alexandria, Va., nothing freakish is afoot. It's just a man--a famous, handsome movie star--reminding you that what can happen to him can happen to anyone.

Copyright April 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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