Yes, John Oliver, We Are Stupid Fucking Idiots

posted by , 28 Comments

To the highly valued employees of NORTH and our cherished creative and strategic partners:

As you probably know, one of the tv spots we created as part of last year’s campaign to drive enrollment in Oregon’s new ACA exchange was brutally parodied by John Oliver on the debut of his new HBO show this past Sunday. Images from our campaign have also recently accompanied scathing reports by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, and pretty much every conservative blog in the known universe.

Cover Oregon: Live Your Life

Now, you may think none of this is fair, given that we have had nothing whatsoever to do with the $200m+ dollars spent to build Cover Oregon’s online application portal.

You may also think it’s unfair to single out that particular tv spot from the many different ads we created, this one made specifically to connect with mothers, the primary drivers of health care decisions in the family, and always meant to be but one part of a much bigger whole that would reach all Oregonians, regardless of income, ethnicity or geography.

You may think it’s especially unjust because our work helped delivered the numbers: awareness of Cover Oregon through advertising increased nearly 70% in only four months prior to the first enrollment window in 2013. And on that first day of enrollment, a third of a million people came to the website to sign up. Had it been working, it’s a safe estimate we would have been more than half-way to enrollment goals within the first week. Relative to the marketing budget, along with the many efforts of the Cover Oregon marketing team, we created real return on taxpayer money.

Cover Oregon: Live Long in Oregon

It’s also never mentioned that as portal delays and bad press persisted, we hunkered down, responded with ads that were transparent, honest and informative. We worked especially hard with the Cover Oregon team to move people toward paper applications through agents and sign-up fairs.

Most importantly they fail to mention that, despite the broken portal, more than 250,000 Oregonians who previously had no access to health insurance were still able to shop for, apply for, and obtain coverage. Even with no online portal, Oregon is in the middle ranking for state enrollments. Remarkable, given the circumstances, and also a tribute to the tireless efforts of Cover Oregon’s communications and marketing staff.

Cover Oregon: Healthcare for All

So, is it fair?

Well, Mr. Oliver and others are quite right to expose and even parody the costs associated with the portal’s dysfunction. They’re also right to be angry at the damage potentially done to the ACA’s national momentum and to supportive politicians in the upcoming mid-terms. Unfortunately for us, our passionate, hard, honest work will forever be associated with a broken website. So no, that’s not necessarily fair, but it is how the world works.

More importantly, are we, as Mr. Oliver suggests, stupid fucking idiots?


Given the world today, you have to be a stupid fucking idiot to want to help activate a legislation so controversial.

You have to be a stupid fucking idiot to suggest a strategy that unites people around a common good before selling them on something as complicated as health insurance.

You have to be a stupid fucking idiot to think advertising can actually help improve the quality of people’s lives.

But at North, we welcome stupid fucking idiots. And I’d do it all again just the same, proudly.

Although, next time I’d probably leave the website out of the ads.

Mark Ray
principal, chief creative officer


  • Chris Fontecchio

    Yeah, it looked more like they hijacked your ads (which I liked) to make a point about the website. I didn’t take the Oliver piece as making fun of your ads at all, other than calling them adorable (which obviously the one at issue was). But I guess it’s harder to make that distinction if it’s your own work being parodied.

  • Pete D

    I’ve seen no such evidence. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people (me included) were banging on the website on Day 1.

  • Pete D

    Awesome takeaway!

  • Jerome Thorp

    Your right sweeping generalities are not always that accurate. They do get used in arguments, and in comedy quite a bit. Just so’s you don’t get caught in the trap of these generalities, I would like to inform you that a vast amount of my personal sample of Oregonians thought these ads were awful. I have also noted quite a few of the comments here repeat my sentiments.

    I really don’t care about the personal artists involved, they were making art, and that is subjective. They can handle critique and probably even parody. Artists, in my experience, have thicker skins than that.

    Now to my issue. These ads and this ad agency is responsible for the quality of their work. Their work was not good. I think a very strong case can be made for their ad’s being uninformative, puerile, bombastic, and make this state, and residents such as my self seem like a joke. I think my argument is backed up by quite a lot of evidence, if you read these comments you should get a clear picture of others that share my view.

    Your argument about my sweeping generalization is noted. I still stand by it, as I am trying to make a point about this ad campaign being a waste of time and money, as well as the poster needing to be ashamed for what was produced, and hopefully humble him into taking responsibility for his actions.

    I understand your desire to stick up for the artists involved in this, and even defend the whole pseudo-folk, twee, and cutesy genre. But I just want to clarify I am going after the poster. My generalizations are just for effect.

  • Brian Flores

    Being able to differentiate between “your” and “you’re” would go a long way towards helping you make your point. You also clearly have no understanding how this kind of program implementation is executed. North didn’t have anything to do with the buildout of the website. They delivered on their obligation, which was to create a series of ads for the product. Blame the implementation vendor for mucking up the marketplace.

    Also, Oregon’s been musically “weird” for a good couple of decades, if not longer. The Decemberists, the Dandy Warhols, Blitzen Trapper, the Helio Sequence…I could name others. Just because you didn’t like the style of this ad doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective.

  • Brian Flores

    Jerome, singer Laura Gibson is a native Oregonian, and the musicians backing her are part of the Portland Cello Project. Like it or not, they are “real” Oregonians. Just because you don’t like the look or the musical style of this ad doesn’t, in any way, diminish the contributions of North or the Cover Oregon team or the legitimacy of the musicians’ “Oregon cred”. Grow up.

  • Josh Dooley

    But.. but.. Wait. I think this letter was great. Why? First, it was funny in the same raw way that Oliver’s skit was funny. 2nd, it illustrated, effectively, another point of view. Namely, people actually took a lot of pride in this work. It was more than a job, it was an ethos. 3rd, it provided some information. Interesting to note how many people actually showed up to signup right off the bat. Relative to other states.. Oregon pulled a ton of people out immediately. So, like the ad or not, the marketing had an effect. 4th, in line with point 2, it showed that the people who created this marketing strategy are actually passionate enough about it to defend it — most groups would take the $21 mil and run. I sure as hell haven’t heard from Oracle on this.. 5th, this letter and the followup posts in the coment section show a totally under-appreciated fact here. Who else is taking this kind of personal heat for this cock-up? Everyone seems to be happy to criticize and blame… but, why direct it toward the person responsible for getting the word out? By doing that, you’re really just proving the point in the letter. It’s easy to take aim at the most visible members of this project.. but, they’re not the ones who didn’t do their job. Franky, if you feel this passionate about the problem, you should be hunting down the project managers and CEO of Oracle…

  • Terry Simmonds

    “You have to be a stupid fucking idiot to think advertising can actually help improve the quality of people’s lives.”

    You know what? Yes. :)

    The ACA is a great thing and it’s great that advertising reminds people that they ought to sign up for healthcare coverage. But it’s just a commercial. I think it would have been just as effective as “Head on, apply directly to the forehead” and not cost $3mn.


  • Jerome Thorp

    Yeah I thought about this. There are people that see Portland and Oregon in the way that NORTH portrayed, most seem to have moved here pretty recently, but that is an aside.

    I have a feeling that some thought went into their target audiences, after all there are 3 genre of music represented in the videos above. I was exposed to all 3 of those, so I guess I had the opportunity to hear the message. I listened to the songs, some were even catchy. My main issue with the work of the agency is that they were selling a product that was discordant with the way they sold it, and the most important piece of the pie, the information on how to actually use this new product was completely absent from their ads.

    So they fail. Yet, they post this defense of some criticism leveled at them. They actually have the balls to try to evade the blame for their failure, as well as the failure they are part of. Why can’t they just admit that their campaign was not effective, actually contributed to the lack of people signing up (because people could not understand the messages their ads were supposed to convey). Why can’t they ‘man up’ and accept that they contributed to the overall failure of this product, and when someone makes fun of them, don’t get on the Internet to spew out your butt-hurt feelings at attacks on your creativity.

    Hey NORTH, your not that creative, your not good at making ads, and your promoting images that make a whole state look like fools. Accept your failure.

  • Kelly

    It’s a problem when you hand it over to the Entitlement Folk scene. They’ve been holding vain court here in recent years. And elsewhere. There’s a very real and capable creative class here, and they’re shedding tears of joy watching twee hit the fan.

  • Cameron Yee

    The Portlandia influence on the ads was clear, but I had mixed feelings about the wholly separate “Live Your Life” ads that had a pretty obvious target audience.

  • richcreamerybutter

    I’m curious about the proposed demographic during the creative concepting phases; wouldn’t this audience already be aware of the ACA/ Did they create user profiles of typical Oregon residents who would have required more awareness? Perhaps the campaign targeted the 20-somethings who “don’t need no stinkin’ insurance” because they will live to be 130 on a steady diet of exercise and turmeric?

  • Kelly

    Brilliant. Thank you.

  • Pete Davis

    Mark, I appreciate where you are coming from. Until a few weeks ago, I actually thought Oregon had one of the *best* Cover campaigns because I had actually heard about your work, and I don’t live in your state!

    At the same time, recognize that comedy shows frequently target locational stereotypes, and whether or not it was the fault of the people in Salem and Oracle (always blaming California, you guys!) or not, your stereotype is that you’re a bit loopier, cutesier, and more earnest than most other places. At least you aren’t from a place where all you do is talk about traffic; worse yet, you could be from Florida! Either way, I think viewing this as an attack is the wrong way of looking at it.

  • Nick

    Why is it that an ad agency, or even the state of Oregon for that matter, is under fire for the failures of a product created by Oracle?Yes, North received $9m to promote the product, but no matter how effective the campaign was can’t cover for the fact that the product itself simply did notwork. If we want to blame the creative agency for getting paid to make an ineffective ad (although in their defense they have some pretty solid engagement metrics), that’s fine, but you will find a lot more examples than just this ad to raise a furor over. $9m is a lot, $240M is much more.

    The bottom line is that unfortunately the national conversation has been skewed by Oliver, pointing fingers at the wrong people, and ad agencies are easy fodder. It is Oracle, a company that likely already receives millions of dollars annually in state and federal tax breaks, along with a “handful of Salem policy wonks” with connections to Oracle lobbyists, that are to blame for charging the State of Oregon hundreds of millions of dollars for a product that doesn’t work. It is Oracle (based in California btw), not North who should be getting paraded around as a farce and focus of national humiliation.

  • Stephen Beck

    Think its fair to say, for people unfamiliar with the Portland lifestyle, this Oregonian aesthetic may come off as a tad bit corny. That doesn’t mean its a poorly done spot – in fact, targeting Portlanders, its probably as close to home as you can get. But outside of that market, lets be honest, the folksy approach is not something most people are just not going to get. As a marketer, you should be aware, and completely ok with that. You simply can please everyone – and thats not your job. There’s a reason Portlandia has done well as a satirical comedy.

  • Smitty Smith

    Hey Mark,
    I’m a writer / web producer with a grip of experience. I’m also an aging punk rock kid from Boston. I suggest you re-evaluate your reaction to the John Oliver thing.
    Seriously, it’s just a joke. I know the parody leaned hard on hard work you guys did. But the punchline is $200 million on a website that doesn’t do the ONE thing it should. I live in Portland now. I saw your ads and thought they were fun and connected with an Oregon sensibility well; So did the guys from that show.
    It made a perfect foil for the joke.
    You guys are not stupid idiots and that’s not where they were going with it. Christ, you guys worked a great ad campaign for a busted product. How the hell would you know that? That would be like blaming whoever did the ads for the Corvair for massive trauma. Not fair.
    Anyhow, I’m looking for work. I’ve done ad campaigns for Hollywood movies, through Real Pie Media, liquor, through Brown-Forman and all kinds of music, through BlankTV, Napster and YouTube.
    I would love an interview.

  • David Ewald

    There’s many sides to the story, and so many better ways to build a website.

    My own part of this is that I had the privilege to travel out East to meet and photograph so many real people. What struck me about this was how genuinely passionate everybody we met was. And everybody we met, both in passing and folks we had contacted beforehand, was very supportive of change in our country (queue the more sweeping passages in Mark’s original comments).

    But one thing I really am thankful for is that I had the opportunity to meet people early in the morning for a calf branding and discuss health care change. Behind all the red and blue, the parodies, actual commercials, comments on websites, tweets and tweetbots — there’s some people out there. I’m happy I was able to see some of that in person.

  • Tasha

    I loved the ads. I’m sorry that they’ve been thrown under the bus as the target for slams against Cover Oregon. But I think you did a fantastic job.

  • Hillpiper

    Portlander here. The ads were effective, memorable, and reflective of a certain wry human-scale way of getting things done. Mark, I loved everything about ‘em.

    I’m also one of those who understand that an ad campaign and a government health portal design are not…. done…. by the same people. I totally don’t buy this “fair critique” line offered by other commenters here. A piece of satire that begins by confusing the ad with the product, confusing Portland with Oregon, and ends with gleefully calling everybody in the state “You Fucking Idiots” is more SNL level writing than Jon Stewart level writing.

    Oregon has a 100-year political history of actually accomplishing things for its voters and citizens. It’s weird that way. The Cover Oregon debacle is a painful exception, remarkable, unusual, where in New Jersey or Phoenix or Chicago politics the deliberate waste of a quarter-billion of tax money is just another good day at the office.

  • adamdma23

    I think the connection between the twee simplicity of the Cover Oregon advertisements and the Portland-centric style of delivery points to the fact that Oregon tends to be very bad about handing over too much capital and trust to the “creative class” and ends of being disappointed when only the fun stuff gets done, and the actual hard work never is finished. See also; CRC, homelessness, fluoridation, vaccination, education. Hard problems to solve, but definitely not helped by the money thrown at them so far.

  • Matthew Jasperson

    Love this reply. Well thought, well crafted.

  • willburns

    Mark. I can think of no better example than the Cover Oregon campaign for the old yarn, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” You guys did your part. Your clients didn’t.

  • Kelly

    Mark, you wrote in some debate above with MG (which you’ve now deleted): “I tried to give you perspective about the actual marketing dollars and you offer some tired old working class sob story about how the efforts of a government to help those who can’t afford health care is somehow robbing you of a day’s work…”

    You probably put a lot of well-intended thought and care into your work. Thanks for that. But as as the Chief Creative Officer of the company behind the image and voice of such a grand public service rollout, you might consider that Oregon – like many other states in this climate of declining public resources – is struggling to achieve even basic bureaucratic competence in its administration of public services. So, when Oregon blunders $250M on bad tech, it only adds insult to injury, and in this case likely did so quite literally. Real physical ailments. Real illness. It’s not like the line at the DMV simply got longer.

    So, before you publicly judge someone’s sad story, and especially with some authority on the patent “tired working class sob story,” please understand that utter failures such as these might impact people in very real and emotional ways. People might not care about your perspective on marketing dollars. Be graceful when you can. And thanks for funding Portland’s creatives.

  • Thomas Cober

    I thought the point of the John Oliver thing was that Portland, as a whole, erred towards focusing on cuteness, visual appeal and good advertising over an actual functioning system. I don’t think anyone was ever questioning the effectiveness of the ads. They were questioning the focus. He was saying that Portland is easily seduced, shallow and focused on the wrong things. Good feelings over being thorough. That seems like a fair critique of the overall issue. I can understand why you guys might be defensive. It’s obvious you put in a lot of work into that campaign. Parody, though, in this instance is (I think) an honor because parody generally goes after the most recognizable part of a subject. I don’t think the criticism was for the ads but that’s where the most effective communication and best delivered joke could be made because it was the most recognizable part. Advertising is always going to have this risk because anytime ANYTHING is ASKING for attention there is a chance that some of that attention will be critical or unfair or made into jokes. You’re not alone in town. Look at Sockeye’s Derrick Rose “The Return” campaign. Great and effective campaign that will be a joke forever, but it never would have become a joke if they hadn’t done their jobs well. So try and have a sense of humor about all this.

  • Andrew Jones

    what does this ad have to do with the debacle of a tech failure? -if you have such a problem with the ad take it up with the person or committee that selected North. I doubt they’ll take take that complaint seriously considering that all the data indicates they did their job- well- actually. Oracle, being utterly incompetent and dishonest, would be the ones to troll.

  • Skip VonKuske

    Mark! Well said, and I would totally be there for the process again.
    I was the cellist in the straw hat and yellow shirt. Also, one of those 250,000 people who signed up.

  • Jack Lewis

    Amen. Well said North. I like John Oliver, but he said they signed up 0 people. Not true. I was happy to sign up via the website (sure I had to use Internet explorer), and it took me 10 minutes. Now I have healthcare (which happens to be free) and dental for the first time in over ten years (I’m 33, lost it when I was 21)