Sex Sells … Health Insurance?

The Affordable Care Act is good for young adults because it’ll save them money on health care, leaving them more to spend on liquor and birth control. That’s one way to interpret the message from a provocative new ad campaign in Colorado. Not everyone is thrilled with it.

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In a federal hearing in October, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., showed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius one of the ads.

Gardner asked, “Do you agree with this kind of advertising for Obamacare?”

Sebelius responded that she couldn’t see it.

“It’s a college student doing a keg stand,” Gardner replied. “That’s a pretty big picture of a keg.”

Alcohol features prominently in several ads in the campaign that upset Gardner. They all encourage young people to learn more about the federal health care law.  But they’re not from the White House, or any agency Sebelius controls.

Two nonprofit groups in Denver put them together, ProgressNow Colorado Education and the one Adam Fox works for, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. Fox, 28, says they only had about $5,000 to spend and wanted to grab some eyeballs on social media.

“We wanted to make sure that we got at least a few seconds of their recognition,” he says.

Mission accomplished. Within a few days of posting them on Facebook and Twitter, the ads made the leap from social media to the news media.

“We’ve seen a huge response, positive and negative,” Fox says. “Some people aren’t big fans of the ads, but some are, and we’ve seen just a huge amount of website traffic and a lot of social media shares of the images themselves.”

The ads dangle alcohol and sex in front of young people to bait them into clicking on a link to the decidedly unsexy topic of health insurance.

There’s the keg stand ad, one with women in yoga clothes drinking wine, and another where young ladies drink shots off of a snow ski – this is, after all, Colorado.

Perhaps most provocative, though, is the ad featuring a young woman with a man on her arm and a package of birth control pills in her hand, with the copy: “OMG, he’s hot! Let’s hope he’s as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers. I got insurance.”

Fox says women were involved in coming up with the ads, but he knows they’re not for everybody. Conservatives and liberals both have called some of the ads sexist. Fox disagrees.

“Women are strong, independent human beings, capable of making their own decisions,” he says.  “And birth control is just an important aspect of basic health care.”

Laura Welp is a 32-year-old part-time student in Denver. She says she’s got her own reasons to want to learn more about Obamacare, and that an ad with a hot guy in it isn’t really a motivator.

“It doesn’t appeal to me. The interest for me in Obamacare is that I think I can get cheaper insurance and I think it’s going to get more people insurance,” she says.

But Rachel Cain, who’s also 32, likes them.

“I was describing my reaction to them to somebody else on Facebook who thought that they were terrible,” she says. “I think they’re hilarious and right to the point. They’re perfect for the audience. I’ve done a keg stand. And I’ve also done ski shots.”

If the health law is going to work, people like Welp and Cain need to sign up for coverage.  Lots of healthy people need to enroll in new coverage to balance out the people who will have higher health costs.  Adam Fox, who launched the ads aimed at young people, says they’re disproportionately uninsured now and that they need to know more about the  affordable options that the law offers them. He’s unapologetic if some are offended.

“We’ve started a huge conversation about a lot of the different reasons to have health insurance,” he says.

Fox says to expect ads aimed at young families in the near future.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.