Spokesman Reeve stars in effort for disability insurer

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Actor Christopher Reeve continues his TV pitchman career this spring when he takes center stage in a disability insurance campaign for insurance provider HealthExtras.

Mr. Reeve will star in an estimated $25 million effort that involves TV, print, radio and online advertising. The campaign, from Focused Image, Alexandria, Va., kicks off in March and moves to TV in April.

HealthExtras offers long-term disability insurance, primarily through its Web site, www.healthextras.com. Mr. Reeve serves as the pitchman largely because after he was paralyzed in a 1995 equestrian accident, he discovered his disability insurance coverage capped out at $1.2 million, said David Blair, CEO of HealthExtras.

HealthExtras sells disability insurance that allows people to buy additional coverage and possibly avoid the situation in which Mr. Reeve found himself should a tragedy strike.

"He suffered the precise problem that one of our products is designed to alleviate," said Mr. Blair.

In the 60- and 30-second spots, Mr. Reeve will appear in b&w, speaking about his experience and the need for additional coverage via HealthExtras.

The campaign targets adults with an average age of 47 who have kids. The TV portion of the buy is expected to include shows such as "Oprah Winfrey" and also run on the Lifetime Network, among other places.

OTHER EFFORTS

Mr. Reeve has served as a spokesman for Health Extras since its founding in 1997. He is under contract through 2002, though the company hopes to extend the deal.

The campaign follows appearances by Mr. Reeve in a corporate image effort for Johnson & Johnson last fall and in a much-talked-about spot that aired on Super Bowl XXXIV for John Nuveen & Co.

For J&J, Mr. Reeve starred in one spot and directed three others in the effort from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. The 60-second Nuveen spot, from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, saw Mr. Reeve rise from his wheelchair and walk with the help of computer animation. That campaign caused consternation for the National Spinal Cord Research Association, which said the ad raised false hopes about a cure for spinal injuries.

IPO FINANCES ADS

HealthExtra's campaign will be financed by an initial public offering in December that raised $60 million. The company's stock on the first day of trading opened at $11 a share, but has since dropped to the $5 range.

Like a typical dot-com campaign, HealthExtras is hoping to drive people to its Web site and imprint its address in consumer minds.

"It's critical that we establish a brand at this point," Mr. Blair said. "Internet space is evolving, and we need to be the recognized leader in health and disability benefits."

HealthExtras bills itself as an alternative to managed care, which the company maintains has left many Americans under-covered by disability insurance as it tries to control costs. According to the company, 66% of Americans have no long-term disability insurance, while the majority of people with coverage have plans that cap the amount one can receive as did Mr. Reeve's plan.

"Disability insurance is something to take very seriously and perhaps to address even before you address life insurance," said Tobie Stanger, an associate editor at Consumer Reports who has written on the subject. "The likelihood of being Christopher Reeve and being in that kind of accident is rare, but there are other kinds of disabilities."

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