The Affordable Care Act is good for young adults because it'll save them money on health care that they can use to buy liquor and birth control. Sounds questionable, right? Well, that's one way to interpret the message from a provocative new ad campaign in Colorado. Not everyone is thrilled with it. Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: You know your ad campaign's having an impact when a U.S. congressman is haranguing a White House cabinet secretary about it at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

REPRESENTATIVE CORY GARDNER: Do you agree with this kind of advertising for Obamacare?

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I can't see it and, again...

GARDNER: It's a college student doing a keg stand.

WHITNEY: Colorado Republican Cory Gardner had a blown-up copy of the ad displayed across the hearing room. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she couldn't see it.

GARDNER: That's a pretty big picture of a keg.

WHITNEY: Alcohol features prominently in several ads in the campaign Congressman Gardner's upset about. They all encourage young people to learn more about the federal health care law, but they're not from the White House or any agency Sebelius controls. Two nonprofit groups in Denver put them together: Progress Now Colorado Education and the one 28-year-old Adam Fox works for, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. Fox says they only had about $5,000 to spend, and wanted to grab some eyeballs on social media.

ADAM FOX: We wanted to make sure that we got at least a few seconds of their recognition.

WHITNEY: Mission accomplished. Within a few days of posting them on Facebook and Twitter, they made the leap from social media to the news media. Fox's phone started blowing up with interview requests.

FOX: Some people aren't big fans of the ads, but some are, and we've seen just a huge amount of website traffic and a lot of social media shares of the images themselves.

WHITNEY: The ads got so much attention because they dangle alcohol and sex in front of young people to bait them into clicking on a link to the decidedly unsexy topic of health insurance. There's the keg stand ad, one with women in yoga clothes drinking wine, in another young ladies drink shots off of a snow ski - this is, after all, Colorado. Perhaps most provocative, though, is the ad featuring a young woman with a man on her arm and a package of birth control pills in her hand. The copy reads:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) OMG, he's hot. Let's hope he's as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers. I got insurance.

WHITNEY: Fox says women were involved in coming up with the ads, but he knows they're not for everybody. Conservatives and liberals both have called some of them sexist. He doesn't think so.

FOX: Women are strong, independent human beings, capable of making their own decisions, and birth control is just an important aspect of basic health care.

LAURA WELP: God, you know, I don't know if I see it as sexist. I don't like it, but if I dislike it because it's sexist.

WHITNEY: Laura Welp is a 32-year-old part-time student in Denver. She says she's got her own reasons to want to learn more about Obamacare, and that an ad with a hot guy in it isn't really a motivator.

WELP: It doesn't appeal to me. I mean, the interest for me in Obamacare is that I think I can get cheaper insurance, and I think it's going to get more people insurance.

WHITNEY: But Rachel Cain, who's also 32, calls the ads perfect and hilarious.

RACHEL CAIN: Yeah. I think they're hilarious and right to the point and they're perfect for the audience. I've done a keg stand. And I've also done, like, ski shots.

WHITNEY: People like Welp and Cain are critical to making the health law work - lots of young, healthy people need to enroll in new coverage since they tend to pay for more services than they use. Adam Fox, who launched the ads aimed at young people, says they're disproportionately uninsured now, and that they need to know more about affordable options the law offers them. He's unapologetic if some are offended.

FOX: There's no such thing as bad publicity. We've started a huge conversation.

WHITNEY: More ads are coming. Fox says to expect more themed at young families in the near future. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.


MARTIN: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR and Kaiser Health News.


MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

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