Local Ad Shops Dine Out As State Health Exchanges Start to Advertise

As Target Date Nears Under Affordable Care Act, States From New York to California Ramp Up Education Campaigns to Explain Costs, Eligibility to Consumers

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Ads for Colorado's health-care exchange pose a simple question: Who's the winner when health-insurance companies compete? The answer, of course, is the consumer. But another winner here is Pilgrim, the Denver-based ad shop behind the campaign.

Denver shop Pilgrim won Colorado multimillion-dollar contract for the health-exchange marketing.
Denver shop Pilgrim won Colorado multimillion-dollar contract for the health-exchange marketing.

Pilgrim is one of several agencies across the country that have won multimillion-dollar state contracts to market health-care exchanges that open Oct. 1 as part of the Affordable Care Act. And that marketing is proving crucial to educating consumers, who are mystified as various states take divergent approaches. Some have been slow to mobilize; others are openly hostile to exchanges. Meanwhile, as parts of the ACA have been rolled back or delayed, confusion is the order of the day.

"People believed they would wake up one morning and everybody would have health insurance," said Todd Spencer, president-CEO of Doe Anderson, the Louisville agency running Kentucky's campaign. "The amount of confusion was just so enormous."

Like many agencies across the country, Doe Anderson is now carrying out the educational phase of its state's campaign.

Doe Anderson won the $11.3 million contract through a vigorous RFP process, a route many states took to find their agencies. This includes Washington state, whose $9.37 million contract went to GMMB, a D.C.-based agency with an office in Seattle; and Illinois, which awarded its $35 million contract to Fleishman-Hillard, which has an office in Chicago.

Some states skipped the RFP process. In New York, the Department of Health awarded DDB its health-care-exchange contract without a review.

California selected multiple global agencies to market its Cover California exchange: Weber Shandwick is developing the campaign, and Ogilvy Public Relations is assisting with media relations and community outreach. It also partnered with the California Endowment, a private health foundation that expects to spend $25 million through 2015 on integrated marketing. Its TV ads are made in-house and target Latinos, the largest demographic of uninsured residents in the state.

The objective of these campaigns is to explain coverage options, when residents can participate in exchanges, who is eligible and how much they cost.

Health-care providers and insurers are also stepping into the fray, hoping to lure consumers to their brands.

Wellmark BlueCross BlueShield, which does business in Iowa and South Dakota, teamed with Minneapolis-based agency Campbell Mithun to position it as a category leader with integrity. Its messaging has changed significantly since the ACA was signed into law to focus more on consumers and their education, said Mike Gerrish, VP-corporate and marketing communications at Wellmark.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois launched its own unbranded campaign, "Be Covered Illinois," three months before Illinois even awarded the state's contract to Fleishman-Hillard.

"Key to the success of the health-care exchanges is education and understanding and awareness, so we get people to participate in it," said Mike Deering, director of media and PR for the insurer.

Campaigns -- whether they be from exchanges or private companies looking to distinquish themselves on service -- are targeting demographics least likely to be insured. These include ethnic minorities and the superhero-esque group dubbed "the invincibles" -- millennials who've never bought insurance or don't think they need it. Young, healthy people also tend to be the most profitable customers for health-insurance companies.

In most states, the campaigns involve TV, radio, print, digital and out-of-home. Some insurers are running campaigns with information presented in easily digestible chunks: "What are the three things you need to know about the Affordable Care Act?" offers Wellmark BlueCross and BlueShield on its new health-care website.

For agencies with the home-state advantage, advertising lends itself to local predilections. North, the Portland agency running Oregon's $9.9 million campaign, has advertising on coffee-cup sleeves. Doe Anderson will market Kentucky's exchange through college-sports marketing and sponsorship.

With Oct. 1 mere months away, nonprofits have also stepped in to educate residents in some states. Enroll America is a nationwide nonpartisan group that kicked off a tour in June in 18 states, including Florida, Texas and Michigan, to teach people how to shop for insurance.