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Paul and Babe ads rankle Bemidji 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 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 aren’t laughing.

“I think they’re offensive, some of them, and I think they’re inappropriate,” Mayor Rita Albrecht said Monday of some of the images included in the marketing campaign’s unveiling. “And I would prefer some of them not be used.”

Lori Paris, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce president, shared a similar sentiment.

“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. 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.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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