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Hipsters, Paul Bunyan make feel-good pitch in Obamacare ads

By Deena Beasley

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - New commercials to promote Obamacare's state health exchanges strive for an upbeat, and at times humorous, tone to sell healthcare reform to a skeptical and largely unaware audience.

Guitar-strumming hipsters encourage Oregonians to "get the best care" and sign up for health insurance. Minnesota's Obamacare ads beckon with the help of Paul Bunyan and his Babe the Blue Ox. For New York State, an eye-catching skyline of Manhattan is seen as voice overs emphasize that "everyone deserves affordable health insurance."

Under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, millions of uninsured Americans will be able to sign up for new health insurance plans starting October 1, via online exchanges in each state. Lower-income consumers will be eligible for government subsidies and coverage under the new plans will start January 1.

Many of the initial state ad campaigns strive for an upbeat, inspirational tone - although some also highlight the importance of adequate insurance in case of a health crisis.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia are responsible for their own insurance exchanges, while the federal government will run the marketplaces in 34 states that either refused or were unable to create their own.

Many of the state exchange ads focus on the upcoming marketplace, the fact that insurance buyers cannot be turned away due to preexisting health problems and that financial assistance is available.

State and industry officials have said the ads are sketchy on details, representing a first wave to pique public interest ahead of the roll-out, which will help determine the success of the reform effort.

The government aims to sign up as many as 7 million uninsured Americans through the new exchanges for next year, including 2.7 million young and healthy consumers.

"It's about awareness. These are 30-second spots to make people feel good about what's coming," said Peter Rodes, senior vice president, strategy and consulting at KBM Group's health services unit, which advises health insurers. "This is the warm up."

Nationally, Obamacare outreach efforts are clashing with marketing efforts from the law's opponents.

Conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity (AFP), financed by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, have launched television commercials that aim to sow doubt over whether the reform law will lead to better access to healthcare. The ads are being run in Republican-led states, like Ohio and Virginia.

The group announced last month a six-figure radio ad buy in four states: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Alaska, aimed at highlighting concerns about the impact of Obamacare on union members.

"Union leaders and members are right to speak out against Obamacare, a law that is already having a negative impact on Americans' paychecks and health care choices," AFP President Tim Phillips said in a statement.

CALIFORNIA ADS GO LIVE

California, the nation's largest potential market - with around 6 million uninsured - launched its new television ads this week featuring its famed coastal highway, with road signs that proclaim "Welcome to Feeling at Ease."

A Spanish-language ad has Latino families, workers and business owners welcoming viewers to participate in the coming exchange launch.

"They're not as flashy or gauzy as some other states, but they do have some practical information that is important for consumers to have," said Anthony Wright, executive director of California consumer group Health Access. "We need to move the political debate to the practical options that people have."

Media analysis company, Kantar Media, estimated in July that more than $500 million has been spent on advertising surrounding the healthcare law since 2009, with $500 million more expected by early 2015. California alone is spending $80 million on awareness efforts, said a spokeswoman for the state's exchange, Covered California.

In a Colorado ad, a woman signs up on her computer and becomes part of a champagne-popping celebration in a baseball team's locker room. The tag line: "Because when health insurance companies compete, there's only one winner: you."

In an ad from the Minnesota exchange, mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan is examined by a medical professional.

By contrast, an AFP ad shows a young pregnant mother who asks questions that suggest the law will raise premiums, reduce paychecks, prevent people from picking their own doctors and leave her family's healthcare to "the folks in Washington."

(Reporting By Deena Beasley; Editing by Ronald Grover, Michele Gershberg and Carol Bishopric)

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