Pharmas Propose Solutions for Web Ad and Social Media Regulations

Pharma brand logos and an icon symbolizing approved health information were among ideas for regulating drug marketing online proposed at yesterday's FDA hearing.

Pharmaceutical company logos and an icon symbolizing government-approved health related information are among the proposed ideas for regulating drug marketing online. Firms including Yahoo, WebMD, and Sanofi-Aventis were represented at yesterday’s Food and Drug Administration hearing on the topic. Most stressed the need for clear guidance from the FDA on how to market online, particularly when it comes to interacting with consumers in social media environments.

The two-day hearing, held in Washington, DC, serves as a forum for interested industry parties to air their concerns and propose ideas for regulations. Many pharmaceutical brands have remained hesitant to advertise online or experiment with social media due to unclear FDA guidance. The FDA’s lack of guidance is “restricting the flow of valuable information exchange” between consumers and pharma companies, said WebMD CEO and hearing speaker Wayne Gattinella.

As part of its “rich ads in search” offering announced earlier this year, Yahoo has been testing the addition of pharma brand logos and links to specific landing pages in sponsored search results. The hope is that links directly from a sponsored search result to specific pages on “Treatment Info” or Safety Info” related to a drug would help satisfy the FDA’s requirements for including important safety information or other regulations.

Yahoo also asked the FDA to provide guidance on online video advertising. “We’d like to see greater clarity on the ability to run shorter-form video,” said David Zinman, VP and GM, display advertising at Yahoo. “We need the clarity to allow the advertiser to move forward to provide this.” Currently, he said, pharma advertisers using video in search ads are only using longer broadcast-compliant video.

One of the overriding suggestions pharma marketers and Internet industry representatives made during the first day of the hearing yesterday was the need for the FDA to consider the unique capabilities of the medium when developing guidelines. In particular, that means incorporating the use of links to required information.

When it comes to search advertising, suggested Zinman, the FDA should “recognize this is a very, very different form of advertising.” Because users interact with marketing information after clicking on search ads, the FDA should allow marketers to “make the brand information available through that search placement.”

Since the FDA sent warning letters to 14 pharma companies in April accusing them of failure to include drug risk information in online ads, many pharma search ads haven’t included drug names at all. For instance, searches on Yahoo and Google for “high cholesterol” turn up ads that state “Learn About a Cholesterol-Lowering Prescription Treatment Option,” and display the URL “” However, the ads actually link to, the official site for the cholesterol-lowering Pfizer drug.

“We’ve lost the clarity and the transparency for the users,” said Zinman. “They don’t know exactly where they’re going until they get there.” Several other speakers echoed the call to allow links to drug safety and other required information, rather than including them in online ads.

Diana Zuckerman, president of watchdog group National Research Center for Women and Families, argued that linking to required information would not be suitable. “One click away is one click away too many,” she said.

Advertising was just one component of the discussion, which focused primarily on how drug companies should interact with consumers in social media. In regards to Twitter, where communications are limited to 140 characters, Craig Audet VP and head of the U.S. regulatory affairs marketed products group at Sanofi-Aventis, suggested that pharma firms could include required safety and drug indication information on company account pages on Twitter.

Other speakers suggested an FDA seal of approval, not unlike the TRUSTe symbol validating online data privacy on Web sites. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America stated, “Such a graphic symbol could be combined with a universal warning statement to provide an indication of risk when there is little space.” McCann Healthcare Worldwide proposed a similar approach.

FDA panelists, however, question how the agency would police Web sites or content featuring such a seal-of-approval.

The challenge for the FDA will be determining guidelines for presenting required information on third-party sites with social media functions, such as Facebook or WebMD, which features blog comments and community message boards.

Some speakers suggested that companies should monitor discussions of their drugs and products taking place on third-party sites, and ensure that incorrect or off-label information is removed; however, they shouldn’t be held responsible for doing so by the FDA if they do not maintain control over said site.

Pharma companies also must report adverse effects of their drugs. That topic, along with promotion of off-label drug usage in social media, is the intended focus of today’s hearing.

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