Groups File Complaint Over Online Health Marketing - 12/28/2010

The 144-page complaint argues that behavioral advertising for pharmaceutical products raises greater concerns than other types of merchandise. According to the complaint, "[W]hile the online medium provides medical information to those seeking access to resources and support, it has been structured to engage in aggressive tactics that threaten privacy, raise questions about the fair presentation of independent information, and advance the sales of prescription drugs and over-the-counter products.”

The Group highlights specific practices that they argue put consumers at risk. They include targeting medical or disease conditions, where a consumer who expresses a particular health concern is digitally profiled, tracked, and served ads and content; monitoring consumer conversations via social media about medical conditions, pharmaceuticals, and treatments; using unbranded online medical condition Web sites that appear to provide independent information but are actually sponsored by a company whose products are used to treat the condition; and distributing free online newsletters and discount coupons to collect personal information that is used for profiling and targeting. Other Group concerns include "e-detailing,” the practice of targeting nurses, physicians, and other health professionals with digital marketing techniques designed to influence their drug-prescribing habits, implementing of word-of-mouth marketing campaigns that are in fact sponsored by pharmaceutical companies seeking to drive sales of their products, and the growing use of electronic health records.

The complaint names several companies, including WebMD, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Quality Health, Everyday Health, and Health Central. The Group asked the FTC to investigate how pharmaceutical companies use the online data they collect and to review their privacy policies. In addition, the Group urged the Commission to work with the Food and Drug Administration to develop a set of policies to regulate the behavioral targeting of health-related products. Finally, the complaint also seeks an examination by the FTC of whether the agency’s endorsement guidelines are violated when advice is given to consumers from seemingly independent bloggers who fail to disclose that they are paid or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.

To read the complaint, click

Why it matters:The FDA has recently sent several warning letters to drug companies citing them for online advertising violations. In August, the agency sent a warning letter to Novartis about a widget on the company’s Web site for the drug Tasigna that enabled visitors to share information with their Facebook friends. With respect to their obligation to issue risk warnings, pharmaceutical companies requested that the agency issue guidelines on social media marketing. They argue that it is impossible to convey the risk information required in other forms of advertising in a 140-character tweet or an Internet banner ad.

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