Over the next year and a half, the state will spend almost $28 million to tell Oregonians about the new health insurance exchange. That's about as much as was spent in 2008 by Gordon Smith and Jeff Merkley in their race for the U.S. Senate, one of the most expensive races in state history.

If the state is doing a good job, you've probably heard the name of the new exchange, Cover Oregon, and a little ditty that goes like this: "I'll sing for the place that my heart has called home where the salty sea air meets the cold mountain snow, where I'm free to be healthy and happy and strong, live long in Oregon ..."

It's sung by Oregon native Laura Gibson. She was asked, with a handful of other local musicians, to come up with a song that was celebratory, confident and optimistic.

"We didn't coach the artists," said Jordan Delapoer, brand director for the Portland ad company North. "The experiment was to see if we can approach artists who are interesting, talented with a little bit of information, what would they say about it? Would they celebrate it? How would they celebrate it? And I think the response was pretty overwhelming.That community is often uninsured so I think they were overwhelmingly optimistic about the opportunity."

The songs helped launch the campaign, which is now moving into other phases.

But how were the songs were received?

Bloggers at the Washington Post called it "twee" and "straight out of "Portlandia."

Chistopher Chavez, a former ad executive who now teaches advertising at the University of Oregon, said the ads speak to "that progressive sensibility, and I imagine you'd find that along that I-5 corridor. My only concern in that area is there's a lot of folks in Oregon. It's a very diverse community of people who don't live in Portland and they don't live in Eugene that might not find this as appealing."

Such criticism doesn't worry Delapoer, who says his agency got its inspiration from Woody Guthrie and his song "Roll On Columbia,"commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration in the 1940s.

"We wanted to launch in a way that got people engaged and got people feeling a sense of optimism that rose above the debate that was going on," Delapoer said.

Chavez, the former ad man turned professor, said the ads do "reset" the conversation around health care, but that they are too vague at this point.

Delapoer said the next stage of the campaign is designed to get into specifics.

As one ad says: "Cover Oregon is a new online marketplace where you can shop for health insurance and get financial help. So, what's the big deal? No pre-existing conditions, past or present can prevent you from getting covered. That condition you're experiencing now, it's called peace of mind."

But how does the ad agency decide whether to run the ads on TV, the internet or on billboards? Or whether to spend the money on sponsorships and events -- or a mixture of all of them?

Delapoer said you start with the business goals.

"Before we ask someone to do something we needed to introduce ourselves," he said. "And so, that's about awareness. And there are certain channels that are more effective at awareness than others. And then, as the campaign progresses and it gets closer to getting people to come to the website to actually get insurance, there are other channels that are better at driving an action or a behavior."

Delapoer says the ads are different from other campaigns because this is not aimed at one particular demographic.

Instead, Cover Oregon has defined five main groups it needs to appeal to.

Here's how the campaign breaks it down: the young and healthy; people who are passive and skeptical; those who are sick and worried; those who are experienced and enthusiastic; and finally, people who are isolated and independent.

Of the advertising dollars spent so far, 43 percent has gone to TV; 15 percent to outdoor media, like billboards; 14 percent to radio; 13 percent for the internet; 11 percent to print; and 4 percent has gone to direct mail.

Cover Oregon says it's getting the word out to diverse communities through ads that launch in October. And that's when materials in Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese will be available.

A survey on the effectiveness of the campaign is scheduled for the end of this month, but how does Cover Oregon think it's going?

"I feel like it's going very well, based on the information we have so far," said Amy Fauver, Cover Oregon's deputy director. "We know that hits to our website went up over 600 percent the first week our ads aired. So you know, while I do hear the feed back from people saying, 'Well I don't really know what it is,' a lot of people still went to our website to check us out."

The next step in the ad campaign will be to drive people to the Cover Oregon site when insurance enrollment opens Oct. 1.

Fauver said they won't run those ads right away.

"We expect that around the second or third week of October, we will basically open up our site to everybody," she said. "The reason for that is we're releasing a very complex website. Best practices indicate trying to do a softer launch. You might recall when Google first launched Gmail, you had to be invited to open an account, you couldn't just decide you wanted one. That was their way of limiting the pool of users from day one, so that they could make sure that everything was working the way it was supposed to."

Users in the first few weeks will have to enroll with specially trained community partners or agents.

While the federal government has given Cover Oregon more than $220 million to get the exchange running, the exchange has to pay for itself by 2015, meaning a percentage of any business conducted on the site will be used to keep it running.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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