July 28--At some point over the next two weeks, chances are you'll tune to NBC to watch the Summer Olympics in London. Who doesn't want to see Michael Phelps go stroke-for-stroke against Ryan Lochte and possibly add a few more medals to his collection?
Pay close attention to the commercials. You'll see the obligatory spots for big-time companies such as Coca Cola, McDonald's and Samsung. Oh, and two little Western Pennsylvania nonprofits called Highmark and UPMC.
Yes, the region's two health care titans are advertising during the Olympics. Highmark, the state's largest insurer which charges some members more than $2,000 in annual premiums, is using your money to tell us they are providing health insurance to Olympic athletes.
Over the past 10 years, Highmark has been the health insurer of choice for the United States Olympic Committee. Highmark says it provides coverage to about 1,000 athletes who participate in the winter and summer games and the Paralympic Games. That includes Phelps, although it's likely he carries supplemental coverage.
Highmark believes the ads will make people realize they have a good thing here in Western Pennsylvania. Their reasoning: If the nation's top athletes carry a Highmark card, why wouldn't you want to have the same coverage?
Surely we can all agree Highmark needs an image makeover. The unfortunate scandal involving its former CEO put the Highmark name in the news for the wrong reasons. The spotlight needs to be put on what Highmark does well: provide access to quality health care. But are the Olympic rings needed to achieve this?
Steven Nelson, Highmark's senior vice president of marketing, says the insurer isn't spending much on the ads, which will run only in local markets. He wouldn't tell me how much money but said it's "probably 15 times less" than what sponsors such as McDonald's spend to advertise for national spots.
Though Highmark pays a fee to be able to say it is an "official supplier" of the Olympics, Nelson said the cost is minimal. He likened it to the cost of "two ads in the local paper." The TV spots feature Highmark members running, swimming and playing soccer. "I am not a USA Olympic athlete, but I am insured like one," they say.
It's not new for health organizations to show their creative muscle. UPMC, the region's largest health care system, has produced artful, memorable ads voiced by actress Blythe Danner. Who can forget the line "Choose your hospital as if your life depended on it?"
This time around, UPMC says it will not advertise anywhere else while ads run during the Olympics on local NBC affiliate WPXI. UPMC officials wouldn't divulge how much they cost but said it's 42 percent less than what UPMC spent during the same period a year ago.
Nelson told me he understands that some people might be critical of Highmark's decision to advertise at a time when health care costs continue to go up. The insurer factored in those issues when it decided to pursue the campaign, he said.
Ultimately, Nelson said, Highmark is communicating "the fact that everybody can be covered like an Olympic athlete."
To be sure, the ads are clever and creative. But shouldn't Highmark and UPMC be as creative with the way they spend our health care dollars?
Luis Fabregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or email@example.com.
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