Ads for clothes, concerts, and flights to exotic destinations
litter Facebook and Twitter. Soon, though, you may see a lot
more ads for something more serious — prescription pills.
That is, if drug makers can avoid antagonizing the FDA.
From now until early January, the drug-regulating agency is
collecting public feedback on how tweets promoting
therapies should disclose their side effects, one step in the
agency’s long-running attempt to regulate advertising on social
media. The move follows Facebook beginning discussions with the
FDA about ramping up efforts to populate the News Feed with
Social media could help Big Pharma pinpoint more customers than
traditional advertising. At the same time, the highly regulated
drug industry faces unique challenges in trying to get their
messages out in tweets and Facebook posts.
Pharmaceutical firms, which spent $6 billion on ads in 2015, are drawn
to platforms like Twitter and Facebook for the same reasons as
everyone else with something to sell: their data allows
businesses to reach highly specific audiences. Think, for
example, of Viagra ads aimed only at men over 50.
“To be able to target to very precisely who’s going to see
those ads means that the industry would waste a lot less money,
I suppose, and be able to see a better return on investment,”
John Mack, who publishes the newsletter Pharma Marketing News,
told BuzzFeed News.
Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only online networks that
pharmaceutical companies are eyeing. Ad agency AbelsonTaylor
Pinterest’s potential to reach patients, noting that, for
example, its users are mostly women, and women make most health
care decisions in their households. At least
eight major pharma firms have Pinterest accounts, by Mack’s
Still, traditional ads remain appealing because they have
time-honored — and regulator-approved — ways to disclose drugs’
risks. Voiceovers on TV commercials breathlessly read side
effects, and magazine ads print them in small fonts. But
Facebook posts and tweets have much less room, and can be hard
to distinguish from personal endorsements.
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Their casual nature can breed bizarre situations like the FDA
coming down on a Kim Kardashian selfie. In August, she
Instagrammed a picture of herself with Duchesnay’s
morning-sickness drug, which she was paid to promote, without
mentioning its potential side effects, although she did link to
a site with that information.
Kardashian deleted the photo after the FDA sent a warning
letter to Duchesnay, and then
reposted it with the side effects, from drowsiness to
“From a regulatory perspective, it’s a lot of pressure to think
about fitting all that information into a four-inch mobile
screen,” Danielle Salowski, industry manager for Facebook’s
health team, told BuzzFeed News.
The social network has been beefing up that team, which has
been around for about a year and a half, in an effort to bring
in more pharmaceutical dollars. Salowski, who joined Facebook
in May after working in ad sales at Twitter, said her team is a
mix of pharma experts, digital industry veterans, and longtime
They’ve been trying out creative ad formats. This fall,
Bayer bought its first Facebook ad for a multiple sclerosis
drug, which presented safety information in an auto-scrolling
line of text, rather than a long paragraph. The scrolling
feature had appeared in other Facebook ads, but not previously
for pharmaceutical ads, according to Facebook. “Bayer chose
Facebook because the multiple sclerosis community is actively
involved in Facebook,” Bayer spokesperson Rose Talarico told
BuzzFeed News by email. “We recognized an opportunity to reach
them where they already were with information that was
potentially relevant to them.”
Facebook keeps the FDA updated on the types of ads that
pharmaceutical companies can buy, according to a Facebook
spokesperson. But clients, not Facebook employees, are in
charge of ensuring that their ads obey regulations, Salowski
Beyond Bayer, some companies promote their products on Facebook
pages — some obviously branded, others less so. Allergan does
this for dry-eye
disease medication and birth control,
and AstraZeneca has a page for cholesterol-lowering
One unique feature of Facebook — and social media at large — is
the ability to leave comments. Commenting can help people feel
more attached to a brand and bring their friends into the
conversation. But, as Mack pointed out, horror stories about
bad side effects or endorsements of drugs for unapproved
conditions could be nightmares for pharmaceutical companies.
Salowski said that Facebook lets brands turn off comments on
posts and pages.
Liking a brand’s Facebook page also potentially increases the
chances that your friends will see it or related ads in their
feeds. That feature could lead to inadvertent privacy
violations if, say, you don’t want people to know you’re
“liking” antidepressants. At the same time, Facebook allows
people to adjust their settings so that friends won’t see ads
based on their page likes.
Tweets, which are even shorter than Facebook posts, pose their
own challenges. Last month, the FDA
said it intends to study if it’s appropriate for a
promotional tweet for a prescription drug to include a link to
side effect information. It’s the latest chapter in the
agency’s slow adjustment to advertising in a 140-character
2014, it put out draft guidance for how pharmaceutical
companies could use social media, but didn’t explicitly address
whether links to information about risks were allowed.
Viral, targeted ads aren’t inherently dangerous, said Ameet
Sarpatwari, an instructor at Harvard Medical School who studies
pharmaceutical marketing. But he’d like to see social media
companies make clear the potential dangers of medical products.
For example, he suggested, Twitter could label drug
advertisements as such, instead of just “Promoted Tweets.” He
also endorses links to side effect information, accompanied by
language that underlines their importance, like “read about the
risks here” (rather than a neutral phrase like “click here to
learn more”). And he wants the platforms to allow researchers
to study whether these steps are effective.
Sarapatwari’s concerns about social media ads reflect broader
concerns about direct-to-consumer drug ads, which are only
allowed in the United States and New Zealand. They can be
incorrect or one-sided, so “what you get is a continual influx
of information about how these products are going to be better
and you should take them,” he said.
And on social media, he said, hype can go viral.
“We want to facilitate the flow of information,” he said. “But
we don’t want to also allow something that is true, but
misleading, to be able to influence decision-making on
something of such a magnitude that it can impact health.”
This post has been updated with new pharmaceutical
advertising figures for 2015.
This post has been updated to clarify how “liking” a
Facebook page potentially influences the content seen in
other people’s feeds.