Joel Sutherland

Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC Lies in its Commercial

Blue Cross Numbers Lie

The existence of misleading advertising is pretty much a given -- we're all desensitized by it to the point that it is hardly noticeable. The other night however, something different caught my ear, an advertisement by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. It goes beyond misleading and tells an outright lie.

Before I get ahead of myself, here is a transcript of the commercial.  The image above is of the number in question. The bolded text is the sentence in question.

Think you can't afford health insurance? Let's run the numbers.

[Screen shows $7,026]

Woah! That's how much each American is likely to spend on health care this year. So how can you afford not to have reliable health coverage.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina offers a full range of plans for as little as $113 per month. You get coverage for all this and more. Plus a large provider network. Log on and let us run the numbers for you.

For a free rate quote, log on today.

At first this might seem a bit like a classic misleading technique where a mean value is used with weasel words like "typical" or "average", when it would probably be more appropriate to use a median instead. In this case, because of the wording in the commercial, it's much worse. It's an outright lie. Let's break it down:

The Number: $7,026

The number they are quoting in the commercial is from the CDC as they cite. It is the per-capita health care spending in 2006. It's a bit odd that they would use a number that is so old when newer ones would be potentially more convincing, but my problem doesn't lie with the number itself.

Per-Capita Spending

The key issue is that they are presenting an average, per-capita health care spending, as likely. At best, this is sometimes the case. In the case of health care, it is NOT the case. The average amount of health care spending is HIGHER than the median amount of health care spending. To put this differently, UNC's Geography Department graduates earn more than any other department because Michael Jordan was a Geography major. Healthcare is similar: large outliers pull up the average.

The Lie

According to government statistics this is true:

$7,026. Each American is likely to spend less than this on health care this year.

According to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, this is true:

$7,026. That's how much each American is likely to spend on health care this year.

Can these both be true!? I certainly don't think so. Portraying an average as typical is one thing, but this is an outright lie. Why is this ok?