In April the FDA sent formal letters to a number of pharma companies warning them of their misleading paid search ads in Google. Essentially the FDA wants pharma brands to put their full name of their product and associated risks in the ad. The problem as stated by pharma companies is that these paid search ads in search engines are only 95 characters in length and there isn’t enough space to include the name and the risks, not to mention the benefits.

If you’ve been following the subsequent online discussion about these FDA letters, you’ll see that much of the debate is centered around the idea that the FDA suggestions may be making things more confusing for the consumer rather than helping them. Although there is the potential for the FDA to drive some unintended, consequences, it seems to me that there is some common sense interpretations of the FDA suggestions that are the right thing to do for all parties.

The unintended consequence most mentioned, is that forcing further requirements on pharma companies has reduced participation from them and thus opened the door for Canadian online pharmacies and natural supplements. If you do a drug search today, you’ll see this is already happening. (Side note: Google has a fairly responsive protocol for a brand to file trademark paperwork to stop other brands from using their trademark.)

The other common unintended consequence is that the ads become so confusing that consumers won’t get what they need for the ad and thus not click on them.

Part of the challenge in dealing with this issue is that the FDA acceptable marketing practices were designed for traditional, non-interactive media. There is a significant difference between a consumer watching TV and receiving an involuntary ad versus a consumer initiating a search (voluntary) for a medical treatment in a search engine. Also, where an ad begins or ends online is today and will continue to get more fuzzy in the future. Today we tend to think of a website having pages, but that is changing as information becomes more dynamic. To create rules that apply to today’s online user experience, will quickly become irrelevant as technology and the display of information evolves.

It does appear however, that even some pharma brands themselves aren’t aware of online user experiences. Or to be more blunt, they may be just taking advantage of confusing online environment. Pharma brands complain that at 95 characters, there isn’t enough space in a Google paid search ad to list risks or the full name of the drug. While it’s true that using the full name of the drug may be of little use to the consumer anyway, adding a brief call to action such as “Learn benefits and risks” with a link to more information can be a compromise that makes sense to the brand, FDA and ultimately the consumer.

Pharma brands currently work under a one-click rule where their drug risks need to be shown within one click of a statement or an ad. The problem is that as information delivery online evolves the drug risks can be removed quite a distance from the statement. For example, a video could explain the benefits while further down the page could be the risks. This content is technically on the same page but removed from the same user experience.

As to what the FDA will do next, they’ve said to keep an eye on their press page.

We are advising our pharma, health care and med tech clients to see this as a warning where there is significant time to react. Stay on top of the issue by doing regular searches in Google to see how the larger pharma brands are listing their ads and what the landing pages state. Be proactive and start adding a risk oriented call to action in all online ads including paid search ad such as “Learn benefits and risks”.

Dane Hartzell

President, Growth Catalyst

Bolin Digital Group

Bolin Marketing, Inc