An End To Cheesy Medicare Ads?


Q. What do the following older men have in common: Lionel Ritchie, Jimmie “JJ” Walker, William Shatner, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Magic Johnson?

A: They’ve all starred in an annual onslaught of often misleading TV ads hawking Medicare Advantage plans that are placed by health insurance brokers and other third parties.

With Medicare’s seven-week open enrollment period set to begin Oct. 15, and ads likely to start running even before then, we’ll be watching to see if and how new rules issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) change the picture.

Those new rules prohibit such ad practices as showing Medicare cards onscreen, using the Medicare name misleadingly, and providing toll-free hot line numbers other than that of the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center (1-800-Medicare). Such tactics can trick senior citizens into assuming the ads come from the federal government, when in fact they come from other companies that may make numerous unsolicited sales calls after one initial contact with a consumer.

CMS administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure on Wednesday told a panel convened by nonprofit KFF that the new rules were spurred by a “skyrocketing” volume of complaints received by CMS over the last couple of years.

As a result, she said,” we’re reviewing all television, radio, and web-based video advertising in advance” to ensure that they meet the new requirements.

In that respect, CMS has a huge job ahead of it.

A KFF study released Wednesday reported that 1,200 unique Medicare Advantage TV spots aired more than 643,000 times last year between October 1 through Dec. 7. 

Over one in four ads showed pictures of government-issued Medicare cards.

Over 80% touted extra benefits like dental (84%), although, as Brooks-LaSure noted, MA plans typically have no more dental benefits than traditional Medicare.

Over 80% of ads from brokers or other third parties urged viewers to call a “Medicare” hotline other than 1-800-Medicare.

Other prominent promises were $0 premiums and, more than two thirds of the time, “money back in your social security check.”

Referring to the latter, “Joe Namath mentioned this benefit in every one of the ads he appeared in, and those ads appeared over 56,000 times,” said Dr. Jeannie Fuglesten Biniek, associate director of KFF’s Program on Medicare Policy, although just 17% of plans offered such a rebate.

Poor Broadway Joe. He's apparently a key face of what Dr. Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of KFF, termed the “cheesiness” of so many of these ads from brokers and third parties.

“Other than the prolific number of ads featuring Joe Namath,”  the KFF report also “does a great job of capturing the marketing madness that so many people have to navigate each year,” commented Lindsey Copeland, director of federal policy for the Medicare Rights Center.

For instance, “about 20% of our helpline calls on misleading marketing are from people who were enrolled in a plan without their knowledge or consent,” Copeland said.  “People are confused and making decisions that sometimes have really harmful consequences.’

Ads from brokers differ from those of the insurance companies because the former are only focused on a call-to-action, explained Christopher Graves, president & founder of Ogilvy Consulting’s Center for Behavioral Science. “They want you to call, they want you to sign up.”

In fact, he continued, a group of them were doing lead generation and not really selling insurance at all.”

These ads, Graves said, try “to make it something urgent and repetitive so that you will pick up the phone and share some of your contact details. They resell those details instead of selling you an insurance policy."

And why use older celebrities and tacky tactics?

The older celebs, Graves said, play to a “rosy retrospection bias,” banking on nostalgia.

The super low-tech look serve as the equivalent of a hurricane or tornado warning by breaking through the clutter of other commercials, which are “incredibly slick.”

And the frenzied antics of Namath, Walker and others play to “promotion-focused” people: upbeat, active, and focused on “doing the next thing….If you are primed that everything is good and upbeat, you’re a little bit more predisposed to take action.”


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