As a public commentator, it is incumbent upon me to decry the current war of words being waged by UPMC and Highmark through their television ads.
The ongoing spectacle is unseemly, undignified and -- aw, who am I kidding? I'm loving it.
Loving it with my thumb poised over the mute button, maybe, but I've found these ads to be way more entertaining than most reality shows.
That is how we have to view these commercials, don't we? The rules certainly correspond with a reality show's: Each player is in it only for the money. The usual dictates of society don't apply. The goal is the swift and final destruction of your opponent. And it's becoming impossible to channel surf without stumbling upon one.
The main difference so far has been that the settings of the ads haven't been nearly as exotic as those on "Survivor,'' "The Amazing Race'' or even "Jersey Shore.'' (At least that's my assumption. I confess I've never actually watched an episode of any reality show all the way through, at least not since the resignation speech episode from that '70s reality show, "The Nixon Administration.'')
The setting of choice, for both health care provider and health care insurer, has been the diner. Somebody must have done a study showing that Americans believe a diner is a place where only truths are told. "He can't lie,'' our subconscious tells us. "I see home fries.''
In UPMC's commercial, a couple of guys are at the counter doing what guys in diners always do: talk hospital-insurer contracting. They don't like the way Highmark is steering customers to that ol' West Penn Allegheny Health System.
(Chris Potter wrote a funny column on his City Paper Blogh -- "the 'h' is silent'' -- laying out the evidence that this ad was actually filmed in Tommy's Diner in Columbus, Ohio. One can only imagine how betrayed they must feel in Ritter's, its breakfast special just a short gurney ride from UPMC Shadyside.)
Then there are the even more strident Highmark spots. In one, three counter codgers are in full agreement that what UPMC is doing is wrong, that it should sign a contract allowing Highmark insurance customers full access to its hospitals. One guy even throws out the M word: "monopoly.''
Then comes the line that lets us know this was staged. Guy says, "But I thought UPMC was a charitable organization,'' and not a single patron laughs.
There's another one I like with a father, his adult daughter and her clumsy son spilling apple juice, with her wiping it up and saying of UPMC, "It's just a bunch of a suits in a boardroom who don't even know us, picking winners and losers.'' Killer line that, Mom. That is the frustration for a lot of us as these two high-powered corporations fail repeatedly to find a civic way to divvy up the surefire profits that come from us Western Pennsylvanians being so reliably sick and injured.
There's an old line, attributed to everyone from George Burns to Daniel Schorr, that goes, "Sincerity is the most important thing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.'' That's being put to the test here, and I confess part of me misses the gentler tone of these organizations' old commercials. Soft piano and violin music would play as we heard from moist-eyed UPMC workers, so earnest and sincere they made Ned Flanders look like Tony Soprano.
But my darker side longs for and expects to see even edgier commercials soon. I recently Googled "best professional wrestling ads,'' and I'd be surprised if the media mavens at Highmark and UPMC haven't done the same. I can easily envision Kurt Angle taking on his most demanding role since the Pizza Outlet customer as he goes to the mat screaming that he has a sacred right to use his favorite hospital whenever a chair is smashed on his head.
The stakes here are huge -- life and death, one could easily argue -- and each player in this fight has access to millions of dollars. UPMC filed a false advertising suit against Highmark last week, so we know that admen and lawyers, at least, are doing well by our regional health care system.
The rest of us can only wait for the next episode.
Brian O'Neill:firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.