Health care needs of young people should be taken more seriously in ads

Chuck Matula

Obamacare has been a controversial policy since its inception in 2009, but now, one particular advertisement for Colorado’s state health exchange has been drawing scrutiny.

The ad features a young woman standing next to a young man, excitedly brandishing a package of birth control pills. The ad’s copy, presumably from the point of view of the young woman, reads, “Let’s get physical: OMG he’s hot! Let’s hope he’s as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers.”

This ad came out hot on the heels of another ad spot by the same group, titled “Brosurance,” in which college-aged men doing keg stands express gratitude that their health care costs won’t cut into their beer money.

These ads have been subject to a slew of criticism and defense since they were released by Got Insurance?, a website funded by two advocacy groups, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado Education. In a congressional hearing on Obamacare’s botched rollout, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, slammed Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for the Brosurance ad — despite the fact that Sebelius was not involved in the ad’s creation — and liberal Slate magazine rushed to the defense of the ads after conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh attacked them as promoting promiscuity

Given the politicization of Obamacare, it’s not surprising that the conversation about these ads turned into partisan attacks. But what is concerning is the lack of attention paid to the portrayal of young people in the ads. 

Young people as a group have not traditionally spent a lot on health insurance, but Obamacare aims to change that. According to an article this month from Time magazine, in order for the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act to work, 2.7 million out of the 7 million people who sign up for Obamacare need to be young people who will, on average, put more money into the system than they get out of it. Looking at these statistics, it’s understandable why a state health care exchange feels the need to appeal directly to the young. But the way the Got Insurance? campaign trivializes the health care needs of young adults is unacceptable. 

These ads portray college-aged individuals as a demographic driven entirely by their most basic impulses. Instead of paying attention to actual portrayals of the young who need health insurance, the Colorado Initiative and ProgressNow made the disappointing choice to focus on crass caricatures straight out of MTV reality shows. 

Real college-aged people can be bankrupted by accidents, diseases and assaults, and it does those people a disservice to be portrayed as idiots whose actions are governed solely by sex and alcohol.

ProgressNow Director Amy Runyon-Harms told the Denver Post, “The whole intention of these ads is to raise awareness, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s great that more and more people are talking about it.” 

It’s fine that Runyon-Harms wants to raise awareness about health insurance for young people, but several of the ads released de-emphasize the reasons why it’s important for everyone to have insurance and instead paint college students in broad, unflattering strokes. Although we don’t live within the scope of the Colorado state health exchange, it’s problematic that any influential person thinks young people will be motivated by messages about alcohol and sex more than any other sentiment. Health insurance is a real issue. People on college campuses across the country need to demand a more delicate and respectful approach to the issues that face young people if we want the national perception of youth to evolve beyond the lowest common denominator.

Matula is a finance junior from Austin. Follow Matula on Twitter @chucketlist.