Like Pharma, Food Marketers Walk Search Ad Tightrope

Food and drug marketers are especially cautious about making health claims in their ads. The Florida Department of Citrus is no different. But as part of its swine flu-related search advertising campaign, the state government agency inadvertently advertised orange juice as a flu cure. In light of increased scrutiny of online advertising by federal ad regulators, the incident suggests many advertisers need to take the same amount of care online as they do in traditional media.

Earlier this month, swine flu related Google searches resulted in ads for brands like Clorox and Lysol. But, whether planned or not, the Sunshine State’s orange juice promoter went a step beyond its fellow advertisers, using the words, “Flu Cure” in an ad. Titled “Flu Cure,” the ad linked to FloridaJuice.com, and stated that Florida orange juice fights “those nasty cold and flu bugs.”

The FDOC did not intend for the phrase to appear in its ads, according to its director, domestic public relations Karen Bennett Mathis. “We are currently updating our search engine marketing program to prevent dynamic titling from creating misleading statements about our products,” she told ClickZ News, referring to a Google feature that dynamically customizes ad copy to make ads more relevant to user searches.

The keyword insertion feature automatically includes keywords chosen by the advertiser in ads seen in Google search results. It’s the reason ads for Amazon or eBay often pop up in search results, promoting unappealing items like “dirty socks,” or “expired food.” Usually, such ads appear when advertisers use broad matching, which bases ad targeting on more generalized categories.

“If advertisers are using the keyword insertion feature, it’s the responsibility of those advertisers to ensure that the keywords they’re bidding on are ones they’re comfortable inserting into their ads,” a Google spokesperson told ClickZ News.

“All materials distributed by the Florida Department of Citrus undergo stringent review by our Scientific Research Team and our legal counsel. We do not engage in any statements that imply or state that citrus fruit or juice can treat, cure or prevent a disease or other condition,” Mathis stressed.

While the FDOC clearly did not intend for the “Flu Cure” phrase to appear in the ad, it most likely occurred because the advertiser included the phrase in the keyword list it submitted to Google.

In a far more public example, cereal maker Kellogg made a misleading claim on cereal boxes. The company touted its addition of antioxidants to its cereals by claiming, “Now helps support your child’s immunity,” in large statements printed across boxes of Rice and Cocoa Krispies. In November, the company said it would stop including the immunity statements on its cereal packaging.

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on makers of dietary supplements, homeopathic remedies, cleaning agents, and other products that claim their products prevent or cure H1N1. As part of an international consumer protection initiative, the agency recently sent letters to 10 Web site operators in the U.S., warning that they must not make such claims without scientific proof.

Pharma marketers have also been under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, which accused 14 such firms earlier this year of failure to include drug risk information in their online ads. The agency recently held a two-day hearing on proposals from pharma marketers, media firms, and consumer advocates regarding regulation of pharmaceutical digital and social marketing.

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