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Chicago

Laughter Is the Best Medicine: How Humor Changed Health Insurance

Leo Burnett helps UnitedHealthcare find its comedic side and stand out in a sea of sameness

Just two years ago, health insurance advertising was all the same: vignettes of happy, demographically assorted people. Puppies. Babies. Soothing voiceover vaguely promising “wellness.” Xylophones. Interchangeable brand logo at the end. According to iSpot, the average engagement score of the health insurance category in January of 2015 was a sorry 4.2 out of a possible 10. People didn’t like health insurance companies, and they definitely didn’t trust them.

So how did humor change that? Well, about three years ago, a few really smart folks at UnitedHealthcare had come knocking on Leo Burnett’s door. They knew they needed to do something different. They wanted a brand campaign that would stand out in the sea of health insurance sameness. They figured if they could get people to like and trust UnitedHealthcare, then they’d be more effective at helping their members get and stay healthy. And that wouldn’t just be good for people—it’d be good for business.

I’d like to say that we at Leo Burnett said to UnitedHealthcare at that point, “Hey—let’s do something funny because laughter has proven health benefits!” But we didn’t. Like all great collaborations, there were plenty of false starts, dead ends, breakthroughs, disagreements, nail-biting, angels singing, and messy meetings. But after some smart consumer insights, a few creative a-has, a little bit of testing, a lot of client courage and a tight partnership, we created a campaign with UnitedHealthcare called “Ways In.”

Mark Twain once said, “Humor is the good-natured side of a truth.” And the good-natured truth Leo Burnett mined is that there are a lot of ways people get into in the complex health-care system. Better yet, there’s a hilariously specific official medical code for each way in. From being bitten by an orca (W56.21XA) to being injured while knitting or crocheting (Y93.D1) to getting a paper cut (W26.2). (By the way, UnitedHealthcare didn’t make those codes up. There are more than 76,000 of these ICD-10 codes, and they’re used by hospitals, doctor’s offices, governments and insurance companies around the world to classify ailments.)

We told funny stories of how those codes might have gotten onto peoples’ medical records. Then we showed how UnitedHealthcare could help by making the medical system less costly, less confusing, less irritating and a whole lot more human.

The very first spot told the story of a couple making dinner in their kitchen. “Their song” comes on the radio, and it happens to be “Time of My Life” from the movie “Dirty Dancing.” One missed lift, one broken dining room table, one medical code (Y93.49) and one virtual doctor visit later, and UnitedHealthcare had rocketed to the top of the iSpot engagement charts, with a consumer rating of 9.8 out of a possible 10.

That one spot single-handedly raised the category average from 4.2 to 4.5. And people like to share funny videos. So, even though “Our Song” only ran in North America, it was the most shared spot in the world for three weeks running.

But the last thing any brand wants is a one-hit wonder. Luckily, people like funny. Seven of the spots Leo Burnett has created for UnitedHealthcare (so far) have also beaten the iSpot average. Most by a lot. “Pool Vault”—the story of a man with a pool-cleaning pole and a dream of Olympic glory—got a 9.1. “Low Jump”—where a mom gets carried away by her basketball moves—got an 8.8. And in a category that doesn’t get a lot of positive feedback, we kinda nailed that, too. “Lamp Post,” a 15-second spot about a guy who’s too busy texting to see what’s about to put him in the health care system (hint: it isn’t a lamp post), got 99% positive social sentiment. Oh, and a 6.7 on the engagement scale—still way above average for the category.

Maybe it’s not surprising that humor was so key in changing the category—laughter really does have proven health benefits. It reduces stress, anxiety and depression. It can also strengthen your immune system and diminish pain.

And given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also not surprising that other national health insurers are also trying their hand at humor, like Cigna’s “TV Doctors” and Humana’s “Great Things.”

But at least according to iSpot, none have done so nearly as well as UnitedHealthcare and Leo Burnett.

Jeanie Caggiano is executive vice president, executive creative director and business lead on UnitedHealthcare at Leo Burnett USA.