Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

No Air Cover for Cover Oregon

Cover Oregon has had its share of problems. For example, it spent $248,000 to develop and promote a website that didn’t work, still doesn’t work and is too costly to fix.


Sensibly, Cover Oregon officials decided to turn the mess over to, the federal health insurance exchange that stumbled out of the gate, but gained its footing and, according to the Obama Administration, enabled 8 million uninsured Americans to sign up for health insurance.

The only trouble with the Cover Oregon hand-the-mess-over plan was that its board lacked the authority to make the transfer. Only the legislature can do that and lawmakers aren’t in session. You can guess what a treat the special legislative session will be to authorize the Cover Oregon hand-off.

Governor Kitzhaber and his Cover Oregon cohorts were initially convincing, gaining almost $200 million from the Obama team to build and launch an ambitious website and PR program. Oregon threw in additional money and the party wagon began to roll. Unfortunately, the party wagon was a four-wheeled stationary bike that never went anywhere. Everyone had so much fun pedaling, they didn’t notice the scenery never changed.

While the masses of Oregonians waited for the health exchange to appear online last October, we were entertained by ads, which some called cheeky and others panned as cutesy, that heralded the website’s fall coming out party. Some viewers initially thought the ad was actually a clever commercial for the satirical TV show Portlandia.

safe_image.phpIt was those ads that provided a perfect comedy runway for John Oliver, newly installed as anchorman of a weekly quasi-news show on HBO, to parody the abject failure of Cover Oregon. No one has laughed at Oregonians this hard since stories about the exploits of Tonya Harding.

On his debut show last Sunday, Oliver stuck the spear in deep. The recent graduate of the Jon Stewart school of satirical TV broadcasting described how Cover Oregon, after spending “nearly a quarter billion dollars,” had signed up zero, nada, nary a single enrollee. That humiliation wasn’t enough. Oliver’s comedy team recruited singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb to perform a parody, which is funny, if a tad unfit for airing during the children’s hour on TV.

Chances are most of Cover Oregon’s toughest critics probably wouldn’t tune in to John Oliver’s new HBO show, even though the show’s parody is the kind of humorous third-party validation they could accentuate their point, perhaps with a few well placed bleeps.

news4_3950.narNorth, the agency that produced the original ad featuring vocalist Laura Gibson, responded to the parody and fusillades of criticism from political conservatives, saying it wasn’t responsible for the website’s failure and that the ads did their job of building awareness of Cover Oregon. “Relative to the marketing budget,” one North official said, “we created real return on taxpayer money.”

Try saying that three times over loud laughter. The ad serves as a perfect vehicle to lampoon Cover Oregon because it unintentionally may have signaled Cover Oregon was going to be more like a quirky carnival than an effective website.

Mark Ray, chief creative officer for North, reacted more sharply to the criticism. He said it was grossly unfair for Oliver to single out one ad aimed at women and mothers. Ray took specific umbrage at a sign looming behind Oliver’s head during his televised story, then repeated the R-rated phrase in his own statement, “You have to be a stupid ******* idiot to think advertising can actually improve the quality of people’s lives. But at North, we welcome stupid ******* idiots. And I’d do it all again just the same, proudly. Although, next time I’d probably leave the website out of the ads.”

Oliver said Cover Oregon spent $3 million on the “violently adorable adverts,” but Ray violently disagreed with that, too. He said his agency’s original advertising contract was for $9.9 million, but was increased by Cover Oregon to $21.4 million.

There is no escaping the humor in that.

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