Swine Flu Fears Fuel Web Ads from Household Brands

Online marketers aim to capitalize on the curiosity — and, in some cases, fears — stirred by news about swine flu deaths and illnesses. However, along with the little-known mask and latex glove purveyors targeting ads to people concerned about H1N1 are household brand names.

Florida Orange Juice, Clorox, Lysol, and other brands commonly found in homes across the country have placed ads that showed up in searches for H1N1 related topics. A recent search on Google for “swine flu cure” prompted ads for Lysol, flu and cold product Zicam, childhood rehydration beverage Pedialyte, and Florida Department of Citrus.

“Get the Facts You Need on the H1N1 Virus. Protect Your Family w/Lysol!” proclaims the ad for the disinfectant spray. Another from the Florida Department of Citrus, which linked to FloridaJuice.com, says Florida orange juice fights “those nasty cold and flu bugs,” and is even headlined with the label, “Flu Cure.”

Though such ads are not necessarily in direct violation of Food and Drug Administration or Federal Trade Commission advertising rules, they could raise flags, particularly when the word “cure” is mentioned in the messaging.

“To claim it’s a cure seems like you’re overstepping your credibility,” suggested Bob Brown, partner with Bryant Brown Communications, an agency serving pharma, consumer packaged goods, entertainment, and other brand advertisers. Implying that orange juice from Florida is a flu cure “is more unethical than illegal,” continued Brown. “I just don’t understand why from a PR standpoint…why do you want that kind of information dissemination attached to your brand?” Florida Department of Citrus did not respond to ClickZ News in time for publication of this article.

Other swine flu related ad messages have been less risky. A Google ad for SC Johnson’s surface and air disinfectant, Oust, is labeled, “H1N1 Flu & Your Home,” and links to a page stating that “Oust…is proven to kill 99.9% of germs on hard, non-porous surfaces in your home, including Influenza A. The [Environmental Protection Agency] believes that products effective against influenza A are likely to be effective against H1N1.”

A simple search for “swine flu” turns up an ad for Clorox that reads, “Plan and Prepare for Flu,” and advertises “Steps you can take to help protect your family from H1N1 (swine) virus.” The bleach brand is also promoting its flu prevention properties at the top of its Facebook page, which declares, “Help Spread Protection against flu viruses like 2009 H1N1 flu with Clorox® disinfecting products.” There’s also an “I’m a Flu Fighter” image for people to post to their Facebook walls.

Because Clorox products are multi-purpose, the brand can be marketed much more broadly than a pharmaceutical brand, for example. While Brown suggests that marketing a product like bleach as a flu preventative could be construed as benign at worst, pharmaceutical marketers have been far more careful. “From a pharma perspective we wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole,” said Brown.

Indeed, pharma marketers have been under scrutiny by the FDA, 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.

The Federal Trade Commission also 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 ten Web site operators in the U.S., warning that they must not make such claims without scientific proof.

There are many unanswered questions about how advertisers can use health or pharmaceutical related messages. For instance, it’s unclear whether running ads in results for searches on keywords like “cure” or “vaccine” might be deemed misleading down the road if the advertised product is not a cure or a vaccine.

“As long as the advertiser is not misleading…if it’s in bad taste, it’s not illegal,” said Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC’s division of advertising practices.

Some drug makers continue to walk the tightrope. For example, a recent search for “flu vaccine” turned up an ad for cold and cough medicine Robitussin, which linked to the brand’s official site.

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