Mark Ray leans back in his chair surrounded by wooden cutouts of rain clouds, birds and a yellow sun. They look as if they were imagined by the children who carried them in TV ads featuring Laura Gibson as she stood in a vineyard and sang "Live Long in Oregon."
The TV spots looked as if they might be advertisements for fabric softener or organic yogurt.
But Ray and his team at North, the Portland agency that came up with the ads, were selling insurance—specifically, they were working for the state of Oregon to draw attention to its new health-care exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
The ad agency's choice of singers and songs was key, but the innocent, even dreamy images to portray a world under Obamacare have made the spots—and North—a national phenomenon.
Ray, principal and executive creative director at North, was well aware that he was doing the unexpected by ignoring the rancor surrounding health-care reform—an almost prescient move given the current smackdown over the federal budget.
"There are a lot of people using fear to talk to people about the Affordable Care Act," Ray told WW before the current government shutdown started. "We felt like it would be the right thing to completely create contrast. What if you think of the Affordable Care Act as something to celebrate? It's a simple thought."
North is a small satellite in Portland's Wieden Kennedy advertising agency orbit. The firm–with only 30 employees and annual billings of about $25 million—has clients that include Deschutes Brewery, Columbia Sportswear and Clif Bar. The firm until now has been best known for hiring Dave Allen, the former bass player for Gang of Four, as its digital strategist.
The ads have won the attention of The Washington Post and The New York Times. They have also faced withering attacks, especially from conservatives, for their feel-good glossing of Obamacare and their lack of any specifics about what, exactly, the state is trying to sell with all that public money spent on ads.
The first ad—with Lost Lander frontman Matt Sheehy—evoked the ghost of Woody Guthrie, while others touched on hip-hop and a '60s folk-music, Beatles animation riff The National Review sardonically labeled "trippy."
Ray says he intentionally played against the tension and controversy he was already seeing in other ad campaigns become self-conscious about the controversy surrounding Obamacare. "We just said we're not even going to pay attention to that," Ray says.
Ray, 51, lives in Northeast Portland with his wife, Kristina Day, and their two children. Born in St. Louis, Ray attended Missouri State University and got his start at a small St. Louis ad agency (while also launching an independent music label).
His break came on a Jack Daniel's campaign. The smaller firm was bought out by Boston ad agency giant Arnold Worldwide, and Ray eventually became managing partner and executive creative director. Under Ray's direction, Jack Daniel's saw significant gains in its international market share and the campaign won awards, including for its tag line, "Enjoyed in fine establishments and questionable joints everywhere."
In 2006, the Portland ad agency North (formed as Johnson Sheen in 1992) recruited Ray. "If I was going to continue doing advertising, I just wanted to be back at a smaller boutique size," said Ray. "This was an opportunity to own my shop and be in Portland."
North pitched state officials when Oregon sought a way to market the new health-care exchange launched Oct. 1. The exchange helps match insurers to Oregonians and employers who want to buy coverage in response to the Affordable Care Act. The law requires most Americans to be covered by health insurance by 2014.
Ray and his team saw the challenge as, first, getting people's attention and then drawing them into the mechanics of what Cover Oregon offered.
The first phase, the "Long Live Oregonians" anthems, were inspired by Woody Guthrie's 1941 song "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On," one in a series the Bonneville Power Administration commissioned Guthrie to write to build public support for hydroelectric dams on the river.
"That was very successful back then," Ray says of the Guthrie anthems. "The debate was so heated, and music is such a unifying language, and it would neutralize the debate.â
The pitch won North the campaign, beating out seven other agencies for the nearly $10 million deal. In the advertising world, it's rare for the original pitch to end up being produced. Ray says it's happened in his career only a few times.
The Cover Oregon version, featuring Sheehy strolling through the state singing a "This Land Is Your Land" homage ("From Hart Mountain, to the Skidmore Fountainâ), prompted The New York Times to say it looked like a mix of Guthrie and âsomething from a tourism bureau.â
The Laura Gibson spot dialed up the whimsy, with an ad set to an acoustic song with a background of cutouts of birds, rainbows and a yellow submarine. "I'm a huge Beatles fan, so we had to slip a reference in," Ray says. The ad sparked The Washington Post headline: âOregon has just launched the worldâs most twee Obamacare marketplace.â
The next advertisement, by Portland rap group the LifeSavas, was a tone shift—less like an indie music video and more like a friend's house party. Another featured Menomena touring member Dave Depper warbling, "We fly with our own wings," while soaring through a cartoon that looked like a Raffi album cover.
That ad achieved something even more valuable: Republican outrage and the attention that comes with it.
âDumbest ad ever?â asked Bill OâReillyâs blog on Sept. 18.
That mockery was part of the commercial's viral journey through the conservative blogosphere—including the conservative blog HotAir and Americans for Tax Reform—with most posts mentioning the Beatles, LSD and the waste of taxpayer dollars. (Many pundits also derided the ads for not offering a single hint of how the marketplace operated.)
State Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point), who is traveling the state in an RV seeking the 2014 GOP nomination for governor, says he hasn't seen Cover Oregon's TV ads but he's seen lots of the agency's billboards.
"They are feel-good ads, but they don't tell people what Cover Oregon is going to do," Richardson says. "I don't think it's an effective campaign and they seem to be spending a lot money."
Told that the original budget had more than doubled, Richardson, the vice chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, expressed disappointment.
"There's an attitude among some people that federal funds are different," he says. "But if the ads don't inform people adequately, I don't see how they are a useful expenditure." (Click here for an article about the ads' effectiveness.)
It's hard to say how helpful the online culture warfare is in drawing attention to the Cover Oregon health-care marketplace. But it is certainly creating buzz for North. Nothing says you're hip like catching heat from squares.
"The kind of buzz North is getting for this campaign is, in part, because it's attached to the Affordable Care Act, hence the national press," says Jerry Ketel, founder and creative director of Portland ad agency Leopold Ketel.
"The other reason the ads are getting buzz is that the work plays to the myth of Portlandia. It shows the creatives on staff at North are in the moment—always a good thing for artistic expression, commercial or not.â
Staff writers Aaron Mesh and Nigel Jaquiss contributed to this story.