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Washington State’s Insurance Ads: Quirky And Hip Or Offensive?

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Are the new ads promoting health insurance for Washington state’s young people quirky, hip and funny — or are they insulting and offensive?

Michael Marchand says it doesn’t matter.

“I don’t care if people like or hate what I’m doing, so long as they get the URL right,” said Marchand, director of communications for the Washington Healthplanfinder, the website where people can buy subsidized health insurance plans.

The ads, launched in late February, feature two fictitious rappers who interview real residents about their success enrolling in health plans through the state’s exchange. The duo are sort of a caricature of rap artists. One is white and wears an absurdly thick gold chain, a coat with a white furry hood and white baseball cap. The other is African American, chubby and wears a green satin jacket and shades.

In the week after the ads started running, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of young adults initiating and completing their enrollment in health insurance plans through the exchange, Marchand said.

At a recent board meeting of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which runs the insurance site, board members expressed their concern about the campaign.

“People are really offended” by the ads, said Bill Hinkle, a board member.

He told Marchand he wanted the ads pulled. Hinkle, a former lawmaker from Eastern Washington, said people had approached him to say they thought the ads promoted racial stereotyping and were upset about it.

“We’ve gone a little bit beyond proper taste,” Hinkle said, though he did compliment the campaign as creative and Marchand as audacious.

Richard Onizuka, chief executive officer of the exchange, defended the ads, noting they were well researched to find an approach that would resonate with young adults. The state is working hard to recruit young people through ads, contests to win concert tickets and promotions at events including roller derby bouts.

“We worked with a national marketing firm and they understand the demographic,” Onizuka said.

Locally and nationally, folks running the insurance exchanges have pushed to boost enrollment in “young invincibles” — people who are 18 to 34 years old and may think they are unlikely to need health insurance. The demographic is desirable because they tend to be healthier and cheaper to cover, so their insurance premiums can help pay the medical bills for older, sicker enrollees.

So far, young invincibles make up 23 percent of the insurance exchange enrollees in Washington. Statewide, they represent roughly half of the uninsured population.

Board chair Margaret Stanley asked if the ads could be pulled and replaced with previous ads. Stanley, a retired director of the Puget Sound Health Alliance and former senior vice president at Regence BlueShield, wondered “is this the best use of our dollars and opportunity to reach people?”

Marchand and other officials working for the health insurance exchange said they are going to consider the issue further, but did not commit to removing the ads. They said it came down to a matter a taste.

“Any art form,” Marchand said, “whether it’s ads, painting or music, is going to be subjective.”