The annals of folklore abound with stories about lumberjack Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. But none are about Paul and Babe and health insurance. Until recently.

Paul and Babe are the TV embodiment of MNsure, the fledgling Minnesota health insurance exchange that officially kicked off enrollment Tuesday. Individuals and small businesses will be able to use the online marketplace to shop for various types of health coverage.

Paul and Babe are at the center of an upbeat, $1 million-plus advertising campaign that focuses on the theme "10,000 reasons to get health insurance." The main TV spot shows Paul water-skiing until he hits a tree and crashes backward. He's last heard saying, "Babe, get your blue ox over here."

Though the ad has been on Minnesota airwaves for nearly a month, the mission to direct Minnesota's 500,000 uninsured residents to MNsure is just beginning. The advertising campaign is part of a $9 million marketing effort, including television, radio and newspapers, that will continue through MNsure's initial open-enrollment period, which ends March 31, 2014.

Even for Paul Bunyan, that's a tall order, leaving some to wonder whether a mass campaign featuring characters of yesteryear is the best way to reach MNsure's core targets — young people, minorities and the poor.

"The TV spot is fun and it connects to [native] Minnesotans, but it doesn't reach out to new [health insurance] users who might have kids or be financially challenged," said Jennifer Johnson, a brand strategy professor at the University of Minnesota.

The stakes are large. The key to making the Affordable Care Act work is ensuring broad participation from all demographic groups and especially those in their 20s and 30s. This group, sometime referred to as the "Invincibles,'' contains many young and healthy folks. Getting them — and their premium dollars — into the risk pool is considered crucial to the act's success.

MNsure's marketing and communications director, Mary Sienko, said visits to the organization's website have doubled since the advertising campaign began in earnest after Labor Day.

"The level of interest has been there," Sienko said.

But Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, has been outspoken in his criticism of the marketing strategy, saying that while Paul and Babe have "Minnesota folklore written all over it," not everyone can identify, particularly those in the African-American community.

Hayden's comments came as he and other legislators on a MNsure oversight committee questioned why an initial round of MNsure grants excluded groups that have long served African Americans, Somalis and other hard-to-reach groups.

Hayden urged MNsure officials to use "icons and people and symbols" that are recognizable by a diverse group of Minnesotans.

The Minneapolis agency behind the Paul and Babe campaign, BBDO Proximity, defended its work and noted that the campaign also has a tailored presence in communities of color.

"Instead of Paul and Babe, the visuals include multicultural faces, but the message remains the land of 10,000 reasons to get health insurance," said Leslie Sipprell, a senior vice president for the agency. "We're in ethnic newspapers and on buses and on the radio. It still feels like a branded campaign."

John Purdy, an advertising professor at the University of St. Thomas, said Minnesota sports and cultural figures could have been as effective as Paul Bunyan in promoting MNsure.

"I certainly get it," Purdy said of the Paul and Babe campaign. "You're trying to go for the broad middle of the marketplace. But you might want to make sure you have something that is relevant to the minority population. It's a tough one, but MNsure really needs everybody."

But Rob Rankin, vice president of brand development for the Clarity Coverdale Fury agency, said social policy campaigns in particular need to function on multiple layers. For 13 years, Rankin's firm has been doing anti-smoking and smoking-cessation advertising for ClearWay Minnesota, the nonprofit created in the state's landmark settlement with the tobacco industry.

"You need top-of-the-line visuals to start conversations," Rankin said. "Paul Bunyan does a very nice job of doing that. It's done its job of starting the conversation and telling people they need to ask questions."

Sienko said MNsure and BBDO Proximity included different cultures and ethnic groups in focus groups and interviews when testing the Paul and Babe concept.

"They may not have known who Paul and Babe were, but it still worked for them," Sienko said. "We realize a recent immigrant from Somalia or Guatemala might not know who Paul and Babe are, but they were entertained and they got the gist of the message." • 612-673-7269 • 612-673-7335