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Paul and Babe ads rankle local leaders

BEMIDJI -- Minnesota's newly created health exchanged unveiled its ad campaign Sunday, with a couple of recognizable figures as its stars. The MNsure ads feature Bemidji's Paul Bunyan statue getting into various dilemmas that would require the le...

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Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, icons that have made Bemidji famous, will be used to market Minnesota's new health insurance exchange. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer.

BEMIDJI -- Minnesota's newly created health exchanged unveiled its ad campaign Sunday, with a couple of recognizable figures as its stars.

The MNsure ads feature Bemidji's Paul Bunyan statue getting into various dilemmas that would require the legendary giant to visit the hospital, such as a water skiing accident and woodpeckers attacking his head while Babe the Blue Ox looks on. The ads are a light-hearted attempt to build awareness of the health exchange, which will allow people to compare insurance plans side-by-side in an online marketplace.

But some local leaders weren't laughing.

Although she described some of the images released as "offensive" Monday morning, Mayor Rita Albrecht said during the Monday night's City Council meeting that perhaps "tacky" would be a more appropriate assessment.

"They don't understand Paul, he's not the guy who has an accident and falls through the ice," she said. To which City Council member Reed Olson added: "He's not Homer Simpson."


"But we've decided to make lemonade out of lemons," Albrecht said, adding that the local tourism bureau, Visit Bemidji, is already working on ways to capitalize on the promotion.

Lori Paris, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce president, said Monday morning she thought some of the ads were inappropriate.

"Paul has been our icon for so many years that you think of that particular Paul, you think of Bemidji," she said. "But now when you see him running into a tree and falling over, it just looks foolish I think."

Paris said she received a preview of an ad a couple of months ago of Paul Bunyan wearing a cast, which she thought was harmless. But what she didn't see, she said, were the various videos and other ads that were going to be released.

"I guess it would be nice to see what they're going to do with it," Paris said. "I think it's a hit to our community image."

The state of Minnesota contracted with BBDO Proximity Minneapolis to create the $9 million marketing campaign called "Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Reasons to Get Health Insurance." The state Legislature created MNsure during the last session as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Leslie Sipprell, a senior vice president at BBDO Proximity, said Monday that the ads "certainly were not meant to poke fun at" Paul and Babe.

"We knew we wanted it to be very ownable to Minnesota," Sipprell said of the ad campaign. "And (we) started thinking about what's very iconic to the state and Paul and Babe certainly quickly came to mind as icons that people can relate to and take great pride in as part of Minnesota heritage."


She said the campaign will have a presence at the State Fair, and its full launch will commence after Labor Day.

Paris said she doesn't remember if the city, which owns the statues, has ever denied the use of Paul and Babe's images. City attorney Al Felix said the city doesn't have any intellectual property rights over the statues, and Sipprell said the firm made sure they weren't violating "any usage issues or laws."

Still, Albrecht said the city and others have invested a lot of time and money into developing Paul and Babe as Bemidji's signature attraction.

"We just want to make sure that our brand is not harmed and that it doesn't get diluted," Albrecht said Monday night.

The statues were erected in 1937, and renovated just a few years ago using a mix of federal grant money and local fundraising, Albrecht said. WCCO-TV named the duo Minnesota's best roadside attraction earlier this month.

Albrecht said she was "disappointed" in how Paul Bunyan was portrayed, but is hoping that something positive will come of the ads.

"It doesn't work for me," Albrecht said. "Other people who don't live in Bemidji probably think it's great, it's a great campaign and it's funny and it'll help people understand it's important to get health insurance. I just think in Bemidji we should take it a little bit more personally."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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