Last Updated: December 5, 2020
People depicted in health insurance commercials are lazy, clumsy, accident-prone, or just downright unlucky. That is, when they’re not athletes at the top of their game. Whether insurance companies are trying to suggest that regular people need health insurance because life is messy, or that health insurance is a pathway to self-improvement, insurance providers posit themselves as trusted allies in the consumer’s well-being.
Insurers advertise themselves as being dependable and responsible (even when the people they insure are not). Health insurance commercials attempt to connect with average individuals by featuring relatable people with familiar lifestyles. The goal is to establish themselves as companies consumers can trust with their health and the health of their loved ones. This is a very personal topic, so insurers use psychological techniques to put consumers at ease and create a foundation of trust.
The Psychology of Health Insurance Commercials
|Brand and Commercial||Explanation of Advertisement||Demographics||Psychological Response Elicited|
|United Health Care: “Two Buddies Painting the House”||Two young, suburban men come up with a dangerous alternative to a ladder to help them paint a house, and predictably, but comically hurt themselves in the process.||Male homeowners ages 21-40||Relief: The viewer is intended to see the men as foolish and lacking in foresight. If these actors will be covered by an insurance company after making these awful decisions, one feels relief assuming they would never do anything so dumb.|
|Tufts Health Plan: “There’s Always an Excuse Not to Work Out”||A young married couple relay a long list of excuses why they aren’t exercising.||Men and women ages 21-35||Identification: The commercial is targeting a young, healthy demographic. The tone is light and humorous; suggesting that health insurance with Tufts is a good idea even if it isn’t tied to an urgent health care need.|
|Steward: “2012 Olympics”||Scenes of athletics training for the 2012 Summer Olympics are juxtaposed with scenes of medical professionals who identify themselves as supporters of Steward Insurance.||Men and women, various ages||Trust and inspiration: The commercial creates an association between Steward and Olympic athletes, who symbolize the peak of health and fitness. This suggests that Steward is a health insurance provider trusted by Olympiads, resulting in a sense of prestige that encourages the viewer to trust Steward with their own health care needs.|
Health insurance marketing has the difficult task of selling a product to consumers who may not have a use for it right away. To make the story interesting for viewers, insurance advertising shows the need for insurance either by highlighting an eventuality like illness or injury, or by inspiring the viewer to take positive steps to improve their health.
Advertising Spending by Medium
- Outdoor Signage
Source: Kantar Media marketing firm and advertising research group
Most consumers shop for health insurance based on a fear of the unknown. Using this fear has been a popular tactic for insurance companies in the past. The United Health Care commercial tells the story of two men in the company’s target demographic who have a sudden need for insurance because of injury. While the men in the ad get hurt doing something that is comically over-the-top, the suggestion is still that major injuries at home can happen without any warning. These types of ads attempt to exacerbate the need for insurance and imply that buying insurance is the responsible thing to do.
On the other end of the spectrum are insurance commercials that encourage consumers to buy a health plan as a step in self-improvement. It’s no secret that many Americans strive to be as healthy as possible. Companies like Tuft and Steward advertise that their company is a step towards better overall health. They encourage consumers to take agency in their own well-being by buying insurance.
In 1996, the United States Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It is a broad-sweeping set of laws that regulate the health insurance industry. Among those laws are some that allow people to continue to carry an insurance plan acquired through an employer even if they change jobs or alter their health plans. This impacted the way many American insurance companies price their plans and it also encouraged an increase in the focus on marketing of insurance to individuals rather than just to corporate clients.
This resulted in a significant increase in the number of television commercials and other direct-to-consumer ads for health insurance. Since then, insurers have focused more of their energy on appealing to individuals who may purchase coverage outside of work or choose to continue their coverage after changing jobs. Today, insurers research the fears, desires, and behaviors of their target demographics so they can create effective advertising for individuals.
Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, (2008). The regulation of the individual health insurance market. Retrieved from website: http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/08/reginsure/report.pdf
The role of psychology in marketing
HMOs Concentrate on Healthy Seniors
Health insurance providers make less money when they have to disperse benefits, so many HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations) have preferred to market to healthy seniors who take prescription medication, rather than seniors who have extensive health costs. Seniors who have little need for medical care and seniors who have extensive need for medical care tend to watch the same TV shows and read the same magazines. To capture the right viewers, HMO insurers have had to research how to create advertising materials that connect with the mental and emotional state of healthy seniors specifically to maximize their profits.
Source: Wosinska, Marta, (October 2002). Just What the Patient Ordered? Direct-to-Consumer Advertising and the Demand for Pharmaceutical Products. HBS Marketing Research Paper No. 02-04. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=347005 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.347005
Consumer behavior is dictated by many factors. One of the most significant is the thoughts and feelings of consumers who share qualities and experiences with others in their demographic. The science of psychology takes much of the guessing out of finding ways to appeal to consumers in a fashion that connects with something they find personally meaningful. Marketing psychology is a complex field. Learn more about consumer psychology.
Careers in marketing psychology
Health insurance is a vast business with customers from every adult demographic, from young professionals, to parents, seniors, and many others. There are several marketing careers that intersect with the field of psychology, including:
B-to-B Product Manager
Health insurance has two general markets: Businesses and individuals. There is fierce competition in both markets, but the largest contracts come from providing insurance through the benefits plan of a corporate client. A B-to-B (business-to-business) product manager oversees the development of a marketing plan intended exclusively for corporate clients. Click here to learn more about B-to-B Product Managers.
Media Research Analyst
Health insurance providers spend more money advertising on television than in any other medium. To get the most out of the millions spent on TV commercials every year, many insurers use media research analysts to determine what demographics watch certain programs and what kinds of commercials get the best response from them. Explore media research analysts here.
Fear of Cost
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, millions of uninsured people fail to seek needed medical attention because they perceive the cost of care to be too high, and are also likely to forego purchasing insurance because they believe insurance costs too much. This fear of financial strain is the most significant barrier to connecting those millions of people with some form of coverage. An insurer may be able to attract a new customer base by relieving that fear, or by making the fear of high health care costs without insurance worse than the fear of high insurance costs.