OPINION: Mills on ... Bupa

Call it serendipity, call it coincidence, but I bet executives at Bupa are patting themselves on the back at the timing of their latest ad blitz (Campaign, 2 May) through WCRS. Two events in the past ten days underline why. First is the issue of foundation hospitals. I wouldn't claim to be sufficiently up on the ins and outs of health policy (and nor would anybody bar a few pointyheads in Whitehall) to understand truly whether this is privatisation of the NHS by the back door or not, but were I one of the millions for whom health was a major issue, I would be extremely concerned.

The second and, in terms of its impact on everyday healthcare, more easily grasped, was the revelation that two merged Bristol NHS Trust hospitals had overspent their combined budget by £88 million. Whooo! That's a lot of money, and you don't have to be a health policy nut to work out that, without a bail-out by Whitehall (fat chance), the only way they can recoup that is by cutting services. Which means longer waiting times and all the other health service detritus that will keep the residents of Bristol awake at night.

Does all this mean providers of private health insurance such as Bupa, PMI and PPP are pushing at an open door?

Undoubtedly, the prevailing wind, whether in terms of public policy initiatives or the public mood, is blowing their way. But it's not as simple as that.

First, like all kinds of insurance advertising, health insurance is a tricky game. It must be tempting to play the scare card. But dangerous too, because it makes you look like a short-term, opportunistic player, which is not what people want whatever the insurance product they're buying.

We transmit messages not only by what we say, but also by the way or the tone in which we say something. Sometimes, what we say and the tone we use reinforce each other to give one over-riding message; sometimes they complement each other, allowing us to say two things.

The Bupa ads are interesting examples of complementary messaging. By their tone, they say that Bupa is an approachable and accessible organisation, not elitist in the way many people associate with private healthcare.

From the childlike qualities of the illustrations - no doubt that they doff a cap to the wonderful Gary Larsen and his Far Side adventures - to the handwritten typographic style, they set out Bupa's stall quite unambiguously. Naturally, those are qualities that, as consumers, we intuit to the organisation itself.

The other point to note about the ads is that they are resolutely non-clinical, again in a way that is designed to reassure potential customers.

The message here is that Bupa treats you as a person. The NHS, by contrast, seems to regard patients as statistics or, in the jargon of the trade, an output.

The business imperative as expressed by these ads is also significant. Both executions here, as do others in the series, refer to services available to non-members other, and this is the critical point, than as a health insurer. Behind this lies Bupa's reinvention of itself as a general provider of health services, from well-being examinations to dietary information, all of which can be bought on a one-off or as-needs-dictate basis.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Bupa is in the process of turning itself into a mass-market organisation but, despite its huge awareness (96 per cent), there is still considerable ignorance about what it offers.

These ads set out to make you go "Well, I never knew they did that" and succeed. But there's a long way to go, and this is but the first step on the road.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Best ad influenced by Gary Larsen.

File under ... I for inclusive.

What would the chairman's wife say? "That's the first ad I've ever seen

to feature an anal probe."

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