pharmaceutical ads, 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. The tone of
unbranded ads tends to be fearful and ominous, suggesting that if consumers
don’t seek a prescription from their doctor, terrible things will happen. For
example, Mylan, the company that owns the EpiPen, created an ad
campaign about the dangers of anaphylaxis, depicting a woman gasping for air; 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.
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 tactics 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. We cannot let drug companies
undermine basic principles of transparency.
Write to Congress and tell them 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
Introduce transparency in unbranded drug ads
Dear [Decision Maker],
Sincerely,[Your Name] [Your Address] [City, State ZIP][Your Email]