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Big Government Goes After Pharma Marketers

Guest Blogger

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Two major pieces of news came to light over the past week that will likely have far-reaching implications for the way pharmaceutical companies market online.
  1. DDMAC Addresses Paid Search. For the first time, FDA has issued warning letters addressing pay-per-click or "paid search" advertising. And we’re not talking one or two letters. We’re talking 14 letters, people, with a grand total of 48 drugs mentioned. This goes beyond making an example out of someone — it’s making it abundantly clear what the rules are. And honestly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But there are some things that are concerning to me (read on). Here are the letters on FDA’s website, and here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal.
  2. FTC to Hold Bloggers Liable. FDA’s brothers and sisters at FTC are expected to adopt guidelines that would hold companies liable for untruthful statements made by bloggers and users of social networking sites who receive samples of their products. Here’s the full story from the Financial Times.

Weighing in on Paid Search

On the one hand, it’s good to finally have some guidance on pay-per-click advertising. Search engine optimization and paid search campaigns are still underutilized by pharma, and perhaps part of that is because it has always been a "gray area" for regulatory reviewers.

Upon review of the letters, it becomes clear that mentioning a product name in a URL "counts" as a product mention, and FDA is not comfortable with that mention not being accompanied by fair balance. Looks like the use of unbranded sites and vanity URLs will become even more important. Not a big surprise. But from now on when it comes to branded search campaigns, certainly the "everyone else is doing it and getting away with it" argument no longer applies. "Everyone" just got a warning letter.

Implications for Mobile & Twitter?

Another point, though, that is concerning about the search marketing letters is that they may have ramifications for other short-form online communications vehicles. I’m thinking about mobile text messaging and also Twitter. Right now, several pharmas are testing out Twitter by posting headlines with links to press releases. Sometimes, those headlines have drug names in them. For example, see Novartis’ Twitter feed. I applaud them for being one of the few pharmas using Twitter, and maybe if it’s their global group tweeting, it’s not FDA’s jurisdiction. Then again maybe it is.

I have also seen agencies that work for these companies boldly (perhaps boastfully) tweet about website launches on Twitter. Think "hey we just launched product.com — check it out." Innocent enough. But what if that drug is a black box? Is the Tweeter responsible? There’s no room for fair balance in those 140 characters.

FTC Gets Heavy-Handed

The FTC is apparently starting to care about what consumers say about products online, especially if the consumer received a free sample. As explained in the Financial Times, "If a blogger received a free sample of skin lotion and then incorrectly claimed the product cured eczema, the FTC could sue the company for making false or unsubstantiated statements. The blogger could be sued for making false representations."

I’m all about the blogger disclosing that he/she received a free sample. But isn’t it then their right to free speech to be able to blog about what they thought of it? Will FTC care as much if the review is equally false, but negative?

If the FTC ruling sticks, perhaps the FDA will follow suit. If a physician passes along a much-needed free sample to a patient, and that patient then happens to post on a community board that the medication worked well for them … then will it be the pharma, the physician, AND the patient held liable?

Concerning Trend

The trend probably isn’t surprising considering all the talk from Washington since the new administration stepped in. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t concerning.

Now, I have never been crazy about politics in general, and I tend to stay out of the discussions both online and offline. But my husband is a well-educated and passionate Libertarian. I mentioned these incidents to him and his reply was, "Welcome to the realities of big government. It’s ever-expanding bureaucracy in action." He’s right.

A bit of advice: Make sure your digital agency is pharma-savvy and knows what they are doing. Unfortunately, you’re going to need that much more flexibility, understanding, and creativity to get your messages to market.

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