During the week before the Oct. 1 launch of open enrollment on the exchanges, ad spending that promoted health insurance—by private insurers, state-run exchanges and HHS—totaled $2 million. It rose to $6 million during the first week of enrollment and peaked at $8 million in late October. Since then, TV ad spending by the industry has declined.
Although it has slowed, Scott Roskowski, senior VP of marketing at the Television Bureau of Advertising, the commercial broadcasters' trade group, said that shouldn't last. “As the exchanges are fixed, we should start seeing those weekly levels start ramping up again,” Roskowski said. “We don't expect this money to go away.”
His projection is in the ballpark of $1 billion over two years. According to Roskowski, the incremental revenue impact of the ACA on insurers could be close to $100 billion. If they allocate just 1% of that revenue to advertising, that means an additional $1 billion in ad spending.
The main theme so far from insurers is distancing themselves from the controversial law. They typically don't mention the ACA in their ads. UnitedHealthcare, Aflac and Cigna Corp., also in the top five of health insurers for TV ad spending since July 1, don't say anything about the law or its effects. There is no mention of the ACA, Obamacare, enrollment or subsidies. “Their ads are truly generic, or focused on something else,” said Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans have spent the most on advertising. But they don't necessarily advance the Obama administration's case for signing up through the health insurance exchanges.
On Monday, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield launched TV ads in Iowa that mocked the problems surrounding HealthCare.gov, the federal website providing the signup portal for Iowa and 35 other states. The ads show a man at the doctor's office dealing with various challenges, including a urine sample container that won't open. “Things don't always work like they're supposed to,” the narrator says. “Good thing the government exchange website isn't the only place to buy health insurance.”
According to Wilner, some of the Blues ads encourage people to visit the online marketplace, while others don't. “None of the ads flat-out say 'come to us first,' ” Wilner said. “But the Wellmark BCBS ads we caught certainly come close, and you have to assume that's part of the agenda for the advertisers.”
Another ad by Anthem Blue Cross, airing in multiple markets across the country, asks if “recent changes in healthcare have you feeling … uncomfortable.” It's one of dozens of Blues commercials across at least 19 states that Kantar Media says “recognize healthcare reform in ways meant to unnerve, irk, amuse or reassure viewers into choosing Blue.”
Whether or not that is part of a larger strategy to encourage people to buy plans outside of the exchanges is unclear. But Roskowski said many insurers are taking this opportunity to brand themselves. “With Cigna's Go You campaign, it's really a branding campaign about Cigna and how they can serve the individual,” he said. “They can still attract the individual policyholder and not necessarily emphasize the ACA.”
Still, some insurers, particularly smaller regional and local insurers, do mention the law. “WellPoint really stepped up and seized the opportunity of the ACA to grow their footprint,” Roskowski said.
So did New York-based EmblemHealth, which is the second-largest ad spender after Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans. Other insurers, such as Providence Health Plan in Portland, Ore., have worked with local TV news stations to sponsor segments or public service announcements that promote health plan enrollment through the ACA.
Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden