Stop Unbranded Drug Ads

We’ve all seen the drug TV ads: a couple walking together on a peaceful beach, or playing with the family dog in a sunny meadow—and then we get to the appalling list of side effects that, understandably, turn off many consumers. Drug companies have to include the side effects by law; otherwise, consumers could be duped into buying drugs based on deceptive ads. But the pharmaceutical industry is fighting back, deploying deceptive maneuvers to get around disclosing the dangers of their products. This intentional manipulation of consumers cannot be allowed to continue.

By law, if a specific FDA-approved product is being promoted, the agency requires that risks and side effects of the product be communicated alongside the benefits. These rules can be circumvented, however, if a more general awareness of a condition is being promoted, rather than a specific drug. For example, Mylan, the company that owns the EpiPen, created an ad campaign about the dangers of anaphylaxis; a voice at the end of the ad encourages consumers to ask their doctors about a prescription treatment for severe allergic reactions. This “unbranded” ad is clearly meant to sell more EpiPens (what else would a doctor prescribe for anaphylaxis?), but because the product isn’t mentioned by name, the risks and side effects of the EpiPen do not need to be disclosed.

These same tactics can be used in social media. Drug companies are increasingly looking to use “patient influencers”—people who have sizeable social media followings—to help increase their bottom line. Patient influencers are typically people who have a condition and have developed an online community around that condition—a valuable resource for a drug company. The same principles used in unbranded drug ads can be deployed using social media influencers: a company can pay an influencer to post about a condition rather than a drug to skirt the rules about discussing side effects and link to a website with more information. After a few clicks around that site, you’re likely to stumble upon a link to a drug to treat the condition, sold by the company who paid the influencer. The drug industry works with patient influencers in a variety of ways to gain access to the patients in their social media following to sell them drugs without overt drug advertising.

The purpose of all this deceptive advertising is to trick consumers into thinking that they are reading a post from a person they trust, while in reality they are being exposed, either directly or indirectly, to drug industry propaganda.

There is a clear danger here that consumers will be misled into buying products without knowing the dangers or risks of those products. The fix is simple. Congress should step in and ban unbranded drug ads and require that patient influencers disclose when they are being paid to post about a medical condition, just like pharmaceutical companies are required to disclose payments to doctors. When our health is on the line, transparency is key. We cannot let drug companies undermine this basic principle.

Write to Congress and urge your elected officials to take action to force patient influencers to disclose when they are being paid to post by a drug company, and to stop drug companies from running deceptive, “unbranded” ads that manipulate consumers.


  • Your Senators
  • Your Representative


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Please stop unbranded drug ads

Dear [Decision Maker],

[Your Name]
[Your Address]
[City, State ZIP]
[Your Email]