An excellent study about how pharma companies use of the internet through direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements on the internet and internet based “social media”. To identify examples of fraudulent DTC marketing they used 4 major sources of information: scientific literature, gray literature, PubMed and the FDA website.
- FaceBook: Pharmaceutical companies use this interface to promote drug sales. In July of 2010, the FDA issued a warning letter to Novartis for its Facebook advertising. Many companies removed their Facebook pages after August 2011, despite the fact that companies can delete these comments as soon as they are posted they were concerned that “open walls” would lead to the reporting of side effects, promotion of off-label use or inappropriate statements
- Youtube: A number of pharmaceutical companies have established YouTube channels for marketing purposes, including Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer-Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi Pasteur… while the issues of advertising ethics and adherence to existing DTC advertisement standards are raised by these promotional outlets, of even greater concern are the unbranded (or covertly branded) YouTube channels that a number of pharmaceutical companies have introduced.
- Twitter: Novo Nordisk uses the branded Tweet technic that does not mention drug benefits to maintain its status as a reminder advertisement. Web reminder ads do not have to provide any information on side effects.
- Third-party endorsements: People are more likely to believe third party endorsements than identified corporate product advertising. To capitalize on this phenomenon companies have funded patient advocacy groups, disease specific expert panels and physician organizations to promote their drugs. Companies have transferred this clandestine marketing technique to the internet which is particularly well suited to support this subterfuge. Pharmaceutical companies have created websites for front organizations (labeled “Astroturf” sites – for fake grassroots) to promote their drugs. These pharmaceutical company-created websites appear to be unbiased sources of information.
Conclusion: ” Web 2.0 DTC is merely a subset of pharmaceutical marketing; however, as we have shown, it is more likely to be camouflaged, permits companies to directly gather data on patients, and changes rapidly. Internet DTC is difficult to monitor. (…) The majority of the public does not understand the possible side effects and ultimate purpose of DTC advertising; many believe that the mere presence of DTC advertising indicates that a drug is “perfectly safe.”
“FDA has repeatedly cited pharmaceutical companies for illegal Web 2.0 marketing. Pharmaceutical companies have repeatedly called on the FDA to regulate web based marketing but the FDA has refused to issue any regulations. Thus Web 2.0 marketing remains an unregulated threat to public health and the general economy that must be addressed“.
Egilman, David & Druar, Nicholas M. 2012. Spin your science into gold: direct to consumer marketing within social media platforms. Work, Vol. 41, pp. 4494-4502. DOI: 10.3233/WOR-2012-0751-4494