Who says there's nothing funny about health insurance?

UnitedHealthcare is launching what officials say is the company's most expansive brand marketing campaign, and the nation's largest health insurer hopes people will laugh.

TV and digital ads started to appear Monday. Depictions range from an accidental fall into a ­manhole to a middle-aged couple injured while re-enacting a scene from the 1980s movie "Dirty ­Dancing."

All spots feature the actual medical codes that pertain to the injuries, with the tagline suggesting that UnitedHealthcare can help simplify complexities in the nation's health care system.

Whether sober or slapstick, health insurance ads are on the rise as demographic trends transform more people into patients, said Steven Wehrenberg, a former chief executive with the Mithun ad agency in Minneapolis. Insurance market reforms under the federal Affordable Care Act also have set the stage because consumers buying policies for themselves know they can't be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions, said Wehrenberg, who now teaches at the University of Minnesota.

"They're trying to get into people's heads," he said of insurers. "There's a huge market of aging baby boomers who are leaving the workforce, and have to buy health insurance on their own. And then, eventually, they have to buy those Medicare supplements."

Developed by Leo Burnett

UnitedHealthcare is the insurance division of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group. The company would not release information about the cost of the national ad campaign, which was developed by the Leo Burnett agency and features prime-time and late-night commercials on broadcast television through 2015 and beyond.

Since 2012, spending on ads for medical and dental insurance grew by more than 20 percent, to $905 million last year, according to Kantar Media, which tracks ad buying.

There are risks in trying to hit the funny bone when talking about health care. But auto insurers have shown how humor can work in an otherwise button-down sector, Wehrenberg said.

"In days gone by, nobody would ever do a funny ad in auto insurance," he said. "And then GEICO came with … all ­different types of humor."

UnitedHealthcare has run ads over the years that promote particular health insurance products for different customer groups, such as Medicare beneficiaries or small businesses, said Andrew Mackenzie, chief marketing officer for the company's commercial and Medicaid business.

The new campaign is different, Mackenzie said, because it's meant to span all business units. Future ad campaigns for particular customer groups will build, thematically, off the broader consumer campaign.

While several ads feature people having accidents, that's not the universal theme driving the campaign, Mackenzie said. Instead, all ads include the actual medical code that doctors would use when documenting the sort of care that would be provided.

So, a billboard showing a man in a stream holding a fish, with a bear charging in the background, includes the tag: "Official Medical Code E001.1: Activities Involving Running." Another ad features the code for "activities involving ­Frisbee," while showing two players colliding.

The spot with the aging Dirty Dancers has the code for "activities involving dancing and other rhythmic movements."

"There are some pretty funny ones," Mackenzie said of the medical codes, each of which represents a different way into the health care system. "There's an opportunity there to take something that seems ordinary in a complex system with thousands and thousands of medical codes, and bring some humor to it that people could relate to."

The use of humor by auto insurers was one source of inspiration, Mackenzie said, but UnitedHealthcare also emulated campaigns in other industries. The goal was "breaking out from the monotony of boring benefit selling," he said.

"We need to earn the time and attention of the consumer by giving them something they want to watch," Mackenzie said. "And we earn the right, then, to talk about something that we hope they'll care more about."

Other companies do it, too

UnitedHealthcare isn't alone in that quest.

Bloomington-based HealthPartners has run ads for years that feature the color orange and cartoon characters that the insurer believes offer a distinctive look. The goal is to break from the "significant sea of sameness in health care advertising," said Shannon Beaudin Klein, the insurer's vice president of marketing and communications.

"We have new players in the market of health insurance, including the exchange," she said. "There are new players, and that means new ads."

Minnesota's MNsure health insurance exchange sought to use humor in late 2013 with in its first round of ads, which featured a comical Paul Bunyan character suffering from injuries in a sledding accident and a water skiing mishap.

Accidental injuries offer a better chance for comedy than chronic illnesses, said Wehrenberg of the U. Even so, there's always the chance of offending people.

"People like humorous ads more than serious ads, in general," Wehrenberg said. "But if you go too far, people will say: This is my health."

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck