At the draw of a window blind, BCBS gets the word out

(Published July 30, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

When Blue Cross Blue Shield wants to send a message, they don’t buy a billboard or send out emails—they light up the night sky along the building’s south-facing tower in letters that stretch several stories.

Blue Cross Blue Shield recently honored nurses with a We Love Nurses display. Recently the company honored the United States with a patriotic Fourth of July message in red, white and blue and prior to that they celebrated Pride month in June. 

The lettering is familiar to New Eastsiders, but the story behind the lights may not be.

BCBS spokesperson Colleen Miller said it’s not a high-tech operation.

“It’s just our internal lights that are left on [and] the blinds are left open to show messages,” she said. “It’s very low tech. It’s literally people going and opening blinds.”

In all, it takes a team of five people to control the window coverings based on a design created in an Excel program. It’s an approach that hasn’t changed much since the tradition began 20 years ago. 

The tradition dates to November 1999 when Bears great Walter Payton died. To honor him, Blue Cross Blue Shield displayed a memorial along the south tower. Blue Cross Blue Shield employee Chris Gillott had the idea to write 34, Payton’s jersey number, along the south tower to honor the football star. From there, a tradition was born.

Miller said the company has used the wall to promote public health.

“We look at it as an asset,” she said, “to send a message to promote community health.”

Other community groups can request a message, though Miller said there are guidelines on what Blue Cross Blue Shield will promote.

“We vet the requests so they’re aligned with our messages,” Miller said. “We don’t do personal messages. It’s not for personal billboarding or that sort of thing.”

When Gillott died in 2013, the company offered “Thanks, Chris” as a farewell to the man who started the New Eastside tradition.

Although the side of the building isn’t visible to many people, Miller said the company will post pictures of the messages to social media and some of those go viral.

“Talk about low tech, high impact,” she said.

Sports messages are among the most shared. Miller said popular posts were when the Cubs and Blackhawks won championships.

“We get great feedback,” she said. “It’s really about civic pride.”

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