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We're Serious: The Onion Is Selling Health Care


Here's a headline for you: Recently insured man can't wait to get out there, start seriously injuring himself. Well, if you're laughing then officials in Illinois may be getting their money's worth. The state has hired the satirical news site The Onion to help get the word out about the Affordable Care Act.

As NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, the hope is to get the attention of the state's young invincibles.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Ah, millennials. They tend not to read newspapers or watch TV network news. So how do you reach them, this under 35 age group considered critical to the success of the Affordable Care Act? Well, you go to the news source they do use, even if it's a fake one, says Jennifer Koehler, who heads the state's Affordable Care Act outreach agency called Get Covered Illinois.

JENNIFER KOEHLER: There just isn't any other outlet out there that has the kind of reach on social media as The Onion does. So we know that we're doing to be reaching a lot of our target demographic, the 18 to 34 year olds, with the announcement of this partnership.

SCHAPER: Koehler says Illinois is hiring the advertising arm of The Onion, Onion Labs, to develop funny videos and other content to promote the Affordable Care Act, including fake news banner headlines like this.

KOEHLER: Man without health insurance is forced to sell action figures to pay medical bills. Get covered. Don't sell your action figures. Get covered

SCHAPER: It's meant to be a funny way to deliver a serious message.

KELLY LEONARD: I think that the state is making a really smart move in using a vehicle of communication that tons of young people are using.

SCHAPER: That's Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of the Second City, Chicago's famous sketch and improv comedy theater.

LEONARD: You know, comedy is the great equalizer. Once you get people laughing, it's a lot easier to get them listening.

SCHAPER: At a coffee shop called the Wormhole in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, several young patrons say they like the idea. Twenty-five-year old graduate student Mary Thomas says she trusts The Onion, even though it's best known for satire.

MARY THOMAS: I could see this being, you know, a good way to create a receptive audience. Or at least to maybe prime them to rethink, you know, their level of action or inaction in signing up for Obamacare.

SCHAPER: But others aren't so sure.

BROOK SINKINSON WITHROW: It feels like it's conjuring like Obamacare as a joke.

SCHAPER: Twenty-three-year old Brook Sinkinson Withrow and 25-year old Jasmine Lee say they tend to ignore banner ads or block them altogether.

JASMINE LEE: You know, there are plug-ins like that a lot of us use.

SCHAPER: So this target demographic is a tough audience that might miss the funny ads, but probably didn't miss this onion headline from last year: New improved Obamacare program released on 35 floppy disks. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.