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Illinois ramps up humor in insurance ad campaign

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CHICAGO (AP) - Illinois officials hope that using humor can give the state's health insurance enrollment numbers the same kind of bump that the federal site saw after President Barack Obama bantered about the law with actor Zach Galifianakis.

Obama's appearance on the comedy website Funny or Die last week in a bid to reach young people resulted in 32,000 users clicking through to the federal insurance enrollment site within 12 hours.

In Illinois, officials are tracking the effectiveness of satirical ads placed with the mock newspaper The Onion, music service Pandora and BuzzFeed, the website known for its lists and quizzes. So far, the results look encouraging to officials overseeing a $33 million marketing campaign to promote health coverage.

The targeted efforts drove 41,300 new users to the Get Covered Illinois website during a recent four-week period, said Jennifer Koehler, executive director of the state's enrollment site. "We know humor works for the 18- to 34-year-old demographic," Koehler said.

The most recent ads play with the idea that getting insured can prevent financial ruin and humiliation. In one, a bearded young man dances in a pizza costume near a busy street. But instead of attracting customers, he gets scornful laughter from two young women. A voiceover says: "Without health insurance, you could face fines and big medical bills. And then you'll have to dress up like a pizza."

The ads stress the March 31 deadline for buying private health insurance and avoiding a tax penalty. Procrastinators may be starting to pay attention.

"We were averaging about 10,000 visitors a day in February. That became 20,000 a day in March and we're closer to about 25,000 a day now," Koehler said.

Getting more young adults to sign up is considered crucial to the health law's success. Their premiums are needed to offset the cost of medical care for older, sicker people and keep costs from spiking in future years. Health policy experts suggest 40 percent of the overall enrollees need to be ages 18 to 34 to keep prices down. So far, in Illinois, only 25 percent of those enrolled are in that target age group.

Are the ads driving young adults to buy insurance? That's unclear. Koehler said state officials "haven't drilled down to that level yet."

The ads appear during TV shows with young audiences such as "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and in GameStop retail game stores. "Hard Choices: Pizza" has been viewed nearly 30,000 times on YouTube.

"We like to think of ourselves as trendsetters in this area," Koehler said. "We're the first state to partner with The Onion. We think ultimately it's going to work."

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AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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