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Health Insurance Ads Range From Weighty To Whimsical

The federal health care law is taking on unique personalities in states that have opted to run their own health insurance marketplaces.

Some states are cracking wise in ads about the exchanges, where people will be able to shop for insurance starting in October. Others are rolling out catchy jingles. Some are all business.

But in each case, the states are looking to persuade uninsured Americans, especially young ones, to go ahead and buy health insurance. Starting next year, just about everyone in the U.S. will be required to have health insurance.

California's $80 million ad campaign is targeting about 5 million uninsured people who qualify to buy health insurance on the state-run marketplace, called Covered California.

The first phase began airing on Labor Day in three test markets. The campaign includes a spot that takes viewers on a sort of road trip through California with highway signs welcoming them to what the narrator describes as "a new state of health." A second welcome ad is in Spanish.

Subsequent ads will focus on real Californians and their real stories about illnesses and accidents, and the financial toll those can wreak on the unprepared.

California's ads take a more serious approach than some. It's a straight-talking strategy that Daniel Zingale with the California Endowment, a private grant-giving organization, says makes sense in a state as large and as diverse as California.

"When you actually get down to the facts about what's in the law and specifically what benefits you and your family, that's what gets people's attention," he says.

But while stressing facts may be just the ticket for California, some other states are betting on less conventional approaches.

Oregon, for instance, launched a $4 million media campaign in early July that showcases local musicians, such as Portland folk singer Laura Gibson. In an ad, she croons about the virtues of healthy living in Oregon, rather than health insurance.

In Minnesota, a nearly $9 million ad campaign relies on humor. Ads show folk legend Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox in a series of painful mishaps. Woodpeckers attack poor Paul. In another ad, the he-man lumberjack injures himself in a water-skiing accident.

And in Maryland, a $2.5 million ad campaign extols the virtues of health insurance with images of blue crabs, a hunky fisherman, a slew of smiling people and a catchy jingle.

But no matter how clever or creative these ad campaigns may be, their success ultimately will be measured by how many of the states' young and healthy residents enroll in health insurance when they open for business on Oct. 1.

This piece is part of a collaboration among NPR, KPCC and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2013 KPCC