Drug ads get scrutiny from the FDA

When patients are diagnosed with an illness, the Web is fast becoming the first place they look for information, treatment options and support groups.

Drug companies want to be part of that conversation. But they are wary of advertising online because of the Food and Drug Adminstration's vague rules about ad content and disclaimer information for Internet marketing. Afraid of violating those rules, most pharmaceutical makers have shied away from advertising specific products online, instead relying on traditional media such as TV and print ads, for which there are strict guidelines.

The online advertising industry says the lack of clarity around the rules is costing millions in potential ad revenue and is actually resulting in less information getting to consumers.

The FDA is hosting a two-day workshop, which concludes today, to discuss how drug companies should be allowed to advertise on Web sites, search engines and social media sites. (The Wall Street Journal and NPR both wrote stories on the workshop.)

WebMD, Eli Lilly, PhRMA, Google and Yahoo are taking part in the workshop to give recommendations for new guidelines. 

In March, the FDA sent letters to more than a dozen drug companies, saying they must include information about risk and possible side effects in the text of online ads. Since that's difficult to do in the limited space of search ads or small display ads, many firms pulled the plug on ad campaigns.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau says there's been a steep decline in online advertising campaigns by drug companies since then. ComSore reported last month that the number of sponsored links purchased by drug companies fell 50 percent in the month following the FDA's warning letters. By June, sponsored link exposure fell by 84 percent.

“IAB and the entire online advertising industry welcomes the current FDA focus on helping to clarify the legal requirements for pharmaceutical advertising in the internet ecosystem," said IAB vice president for public policy Mike Zaneis. "Greater certainty is needed if this marketing segment is going to continue to grow, which will benefit consumers by providing greater availability of health information."

He said in an email that there are quite a few "innovative means for providing the appropriate risk information online" to strike an appropriate balance for the FDA, consumers and the industry.

Google, for example, suggested creating custom ads for FDA-approved products that highlight an extra line of text that clearly states risks and a link to more information for consumers.

"We think this new format will help set a clear standard for advertisers and give users important information," said Pablo Chavez, Google managing policy counsel in a company blog entry yesterday afternoon.

At yesterday's portion of the hearing, Yahoo vice president David Zinman said providing links to more information on display ads--the typical large ads you see on Web sites--is actually more useful than traditional TV or newspaper ads because consumers can spend as much time reading the risk information as they need. He said search ads, which only have room for 145 characters, are not the appropriate place for disclaimer information, but prominent links should be provided once users click through to the site.

He added that drug companies are often running TV-approved video ads on the Internet. But they are too long for the online format and are therefore not effective. He suggested pairing the video with risk information and links to additional information.

"But advertisers need clarity and certainty that this is acceptable," he said. "We're waiting for a thumbs up."

He also said he thought advertisers shouldn't be held responsible for user-generated content that the companies did not create.

One option that is favored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America would establish a special logo for ads and Web sites for FDA-regulated products.

Elizabeth Forminard, senior counsel for Johnson & Johnson, said the FDA needs to build flexibility into its guidelines, which should take into account "who is talking, what they are saying and where they are saying it," especially when it comes to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

"The Internet gives us the ability and flexibility to reach people where they are and when they need it most," she said. But companies should not be responsible for scouring the Web for any adverse incidents involving their products. "Companies should address them as they are made aware of them."

The workshop continues until 5 p.m. today.