Welcome signs flash across the screen as the narrator of a new television commercial describes a not-too-distant future for millions of Californians.
"Soon, Californians from Sacramento to Salinas to San Diego will have equal access to quality health insurance," says the voice in a much-anticipated health care ad previewed by the state exchange Thursday. "Those who need financial assistance will get it. And nobody will be denied because of a pre-existing condition.
"Welcome to a new state of health."
With just a month left before the state launches its insurance marketplace under the federal health care law, an immense effort will endeavor to saturate the living rooms, workplaces and street corners of nearly 40 million residents to change lifestyles and health care habits.
The $80 million media campaign – composed of television, radio, digital advertising, social media and an updated website – is designed to inspire, educate and answer questions about new coverage options.
The opening welcome ad plays off of the state's coastlines and car-dominated culture.
Peter V. Lee, the executive director of Covered California, said the marketing push is meant to resonate with people who have become accustomed to bracing for the worst. Materials describe them as living in a state of "What if?"
"What we are going to be doing is telling Californians that there is a new opportunity, a new culture of coverage that's available with financial help, with new tools and rules that mean they cannot be denied by an insurance plan," Lee said. "So they are going to actually have peace of mind that up until now they have not been able to have."
Under the new law, nearly all Americans will have to carry health insurance or pay a penalty.
Other states have already introduced elaborate marketing campaigns to promote their insurance marketplaces to consumers. Oregon, which debuted its campaign in July, offered a whimsical television spot featuring barns, crab-fishing boats and beach bonfires as the backdrop to message-filled original music.
A Connecticut commercial was perhaps more direct, relying on orange bubbles with captions like "change is affordable" floating across the screen.
California, which originally planned to launch its campaign in July, opted to delay the push until closer to the Oct. 1 launch date.
The state has set a goal of reaching more than 5 million people without health insurance. Officials plan to measure the effectiveness via focus groups and call volume into a help line.
The outreach effort won't be easy.
The public is only slightly more knowledgeable about the health care law than it was two years ago, according to a recent Field Poll. The survey, conducted June 26 to July 21, found just 15 percent of registered voters said they were very knowledgeable about specific changes contained in the program, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2010.
Sixty percent of voters said they were somewhat knowledgeable, according to the poll.
For some states, there's also the challenge of rebranding an oft-maligned federal program as new and attractive, though the health care law enjoys considerably more support in deep blue California.
Anthony Wright, the executive director of Health Access, previewed four of the planned television ads and said it was wise of the health exchange not to directly link Covered California to the Affordable Care Act.
"After hundreds of millions of dollars of negative political advertising, it's really important to highlight the practical benefits," Wright said. "We're trying to move beyond the political debate."
The main goal, he said, is to get people in the door.
"I hope that once they do get covered they recognize that this is the result of the Affordable Care Act," Wright added.
Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the University of Southern California, described both welcome ads as largely effective. He said thirty-second spots must be simple, emotional and have a good hook.
" 'Welcome to a new state' is a nice riff on our big car-culture state and its road signs," said Kaplan, who worked as vice president of production for live-action feature films at Walt Disney Studios.
He noted that a Spanish-language version of the ad includes a metaphor of a door.
"They're both warm ads, so they convey the feeling that getting in touch won't be complicated or alienating, which people might fear about a government agency," he said. "It's a promising start for their media outreach."
Covered California has budgeted $45 million for the initial media blitz and wants to spend another $35 million through next year. The money is from a one-time federal grant. A dozen insurers as part of the exchange are set to begin selling policies for individuals and families. Younger uninsured residents were identified as a key target group. Coverage under the new law begins Jan. 1.
Roy Behr, an ad consultant who has conducted heath care outreach campaigns for the state, credited the ads' creators with making unique Spanish-language content rather than just translating another version.
Still, Behr said he hopes later efforts would rely less on assumptions of familiarity with the law – and do a better job of answering what Covered California is. He added that future ads also should focus more on featuring relatable characters.
A commercial planned for later in the fall shows people suffering various injuries sustained playing sports and in bicycle and automobile accidents. The welcome ad will begin airing in three test markets – Sacramento, Chico-Redding and San Diego – starting on Labor Day.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.