New HealthCare.gov ads smartly target young, athletic types who feel invincible

For all of the SNAFUs with the website and all of the delayed mandates, one thing that the Department of Health and Human Services has gotten right is the advertising.

New HealthCare.gov ads include retired basketball stars Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Alonzo Mourning as spokespeople to encourage young, healthy people to sign up for health coverage in the marketplace.

With new rules prohibiting insurers from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions, it’s easy to get older, sicker people to sign up for health coverage because they obviously need it. But it’s harder to get young, invincible people to see the value in purchasing health insurance since they don’t use much health care. But it’s also critically important to get them into the risk pool because, without them, there is a high risk of adverse selection in the risk pools, driving up insurance premiums for everyone. That’s why the much-maligned individual mandate is so important and also entirely inadequate.

While a bunch of young men on a basketball court probably can’t relate to cancer treatment, they can often relate to sports injuries. So it’s obvious why athletes are compelling spokespeople for this cause.

But why Johnson and Mourning instead of current players who are more relevant? Without going into their stories explicitly, many basketball fans understand that these men became seriously ill during their NBA careers. Johnson famously announced his HIV diagnosis in 1991, and Mourning’s career was also cut short by a rare kidney disease that required a transplant and ended his career. Both men had an air of invincibility but were faced with life-and-death circumstances. Both are survivors, and both required expensive medical treatments that most young people don’t think about.

So these ads are a stroke of genius by HHS. Will they be enough to close the gap of young, healthy people? Probably not. But they could definitely move the needle.

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