Through 'TV doctors' ad, Cigna promotes a real social message about preventive care [Q&A]

Actors Alan Alda, Patrick Dempsey, Lisa Edelstein and Donald Faison goof around behind the scenes while shooting an advertisement campaign for Cigna that encourages Americans to get an annual check-up. (Photo courtesy of Cigna)

By now, you’ve probably seen the commercials on your TV, tablet or smartphone. They may have caught your attention when the well-known faces of “TV doctors” filled the screen, and perhaps kept your attention with the witty banter.

It’s Cigna’s newest ad campaign, which aims to use the power of celebrities and humor to encourage Americans to get their annual check-up.

One version of the ad, posted on Cigna’s Facebook page, has generated hundreds of thousands of views, thousands of shares and reactions, and hundreds of comments. The budget for the campaign was around $9 million, Cigna told FierceHealthPayer, and the campaign will continue into 2017.

To find out more about this unique payer advertising campaign, FierceHealthPayer spoke with Cigna Global Branding Officer Stephen Cassell, who describes how the idea began, how his team executed it and what people are saying about the finished product.

FierceHealthPayer: Where did the idea for the commercials come from and why does Cigna want to promote wellness visits?

Stephen Cassell: The germ of the idea, and really the drive for what we’re trying to accomplish here, is around the idea that there’s a significant number of lives that can be saved each year if people would just go to their preventive care visits. And really that all starts with the good old annual checkup. That is derived from the CDC’s study into how many lives could be saved a year if people would just get the prescribed preventive services.

Stephen Cassell

And then to build off of that, when you actually force yourself to go to these preventive care checkups every year--even when you are in seemingly good health--they can help detect issues early and give people a better chance for treatment. The other benefit is establishing that relationship with your physician.

The other aspects of this was that once people start engaging in their health, then learning their "core 4" numbers (body mass, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar), perhaps we can start to shift some of the conversation around keeping well versus just going to the doctor when you’re sick.

FHP: Following up on that, opinions are mixed about the benefits of annual checkups; some say there’s no real reason to do it. What’s Cigna’s stance?

SC: We go back to what the CDC says about saving 100,000 lives a year--it’s a very big number--if people would just get preventive care. And a lot of that preventive care begins when you see a doctor for an annual check-up. So if you don’t start somewhere, you don’t have that relationship; that’s where early detection can really happen, versus just going when something is already wrong.

FHP: So what made you turn to the idea of getting TV doctors to deliver this message? What was it about them that you thought would resonate with consumers?

SC: We really wanted to pull together a group of what we call influencers--people who individuals from multiple generations have a connection to or memory of. So that’s why we put this ensemble cast together. When we think about all the medical shows that are out there--and you can probably name five or 10 just off the top of your head--their characters have never really saved a real life. On TV they save a lot. Wouldn’t this be an interesting way to pique the attention of individuals in a creative way so that the message of getting to see a real doctor comes across?

We tapped into the ability of people to connect with one or more of the TV doctors and then really hammering home the message of going for your annual checkup and knowing the core 4 numbers and then really starting to take control of your health.

FHP: How did the celebrities respond when you pitched the idea to them?

SC: It was really, really interesting to be involved in pulling this together. We knew that we needed an iconic lead talent, and that somebody like Alan Alda would resonate across generations. When we really started to engage, what we found was his foundation--the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University--actually deals with how you increase communication between scientists, doctors and nurses, and in the case of scientists, their audiences, and in the case of doctors and nurses, their patients. So he was very interested in what we were trying to do.

And then the same thing for Patrick Dempsey, with the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but there was a very personal reason for him to become involved as well.  

There was a personal tie with each one of these actors, and that made for a really special experience when we were filming and pulling this together. And I think that comes across when you see the spot, just the way that they all work together, and were so engaged with what we did on TV.

FHP: How important was it, perhaps compared to past advertising campaigns, to get it onto channels other than television, and how did you go about that?

SC: That was super critical for the success of what we’re trying to do. My own parents--my dad is in his 80s and my mom in her late 70s--are on Facebook every night as they watch TV. Pretty much all the generations now are multi-channel. We knew that we wanted something that would start to get people talking and hopefully sharing among their friends on social media and in real life. It was always thought that we wanted to have something so interesting that it would create a little bit of that buzz, and indeed that’s what we’ve seen happen just in the couple of weeks since we’ve launched. There's a lot of really positive feedback that it’s nice to see the TV doctors coming together around a positive message--not just for our customers but for everybody.

FHP: And what’s been the response from the medical community?

SC: I myself spend quite a few hours looking over the comments on Facebook and Twitter, and quite a bit of shares, believe it or not, are medical practices that like the message and are sharing it. It’s interesting to watch--because while clearly we’re Cigna, this message is so important that hopefully this is beneficial beyond Cigna. It’s much more of a societal issue that we face, with people just not engaged with their healthcare.

FHP: Do you think this will be a trend--health insurance companies advertising for community benefit instead of for their plans?

SC: If you think about how society works--people move, people are shifting jobs--we felt it was really important to hone in on the goal of helping to save 100,000 lives a year. And why can’t we use creativity to get the message across in this industry? When we looked at how we were pulling this together, it was a fun and light-hearted approach to speaking about something that’s very important. 

We’ve conducted a lot of research--qualitative and quantitative--on ideas and messaging before we roll it out, and people don’t respond well to scolding and the shaming. A lot of times what’s really necessary to get an annual checkup is just a little nudge, and hopefully that’s what we’re achieving with this particular approach.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.