Tuesday, April 07, 2009

FDA Pounces on Digital Advertising

posted by Emily Downward on Apr 7, 2009
original post: http://bit.ly/k5fS

Last week, the FDA issued 14 warning letters about digital advertising, specifically paid keyword advertising. Paid keyword advertising is the text ads that come up in search results, usually on the top or right-hand side, marked “Sponsored Links.” Marketers generally buy their brand names, indications and symptoms of the condition.

All the warnings were consistent with one of the DDMAC rules for pharma marketing: if you make a claim, even if it’s just the brand name and the indication, you must include fair balance. The companies receiving the warning letters last week were running text ads for their products without providing risk information. Granted, there isn’t space allowable within search advertising to include the fair balance. So that means brands can either create a reminder ad or drive traffic to different site, such as a corporate or unbranded site.

However, there is still a lot of gray area: for example, can you buy the keyword for the condition ("breast cancer") and run a reminder ad for your brand that treats it? Maybe some will try this, but others may decide against it. This is another example of how much guidelines from the FDA are needed, rather than trying to infer what’s acceptable and what’s not from the warning letters they issue.

Frankly, the FDA probably could have issued more than 14 letters, as this usage of branded paid search advertising is fairly widespread and has been for years. Why did pharma marketers think this was okay? In the absence of any guidelines for the digital space, marketers had made the assumption that having the risk information “one click away” was sufficient. The “one click rule” has been a generally understood practice for at least 9 years across online marketing, including many product Web sites. With these latest letters, we now know that’s not acceptable to the FDA. How many brands will need to change their Web sites and other online marketing assets to reflect this new understanding? And while these letters were targeting a practice that’s very “Web 1.0,” this will likely have impact into the social media space of Web 2.0 as well.

These letters will change keyword advertising for pharma. I would predict that brands will use an unbranded property or their corporate sites for most of the disease-state and symptom keyword buys, and they may decide not to buy their brand name at all. The brand site should rank first in organic listings anyway, so there is a question of whether buying the brand name as a keyword buy is an efficient spend of limited dollars. It will also place more importance on search engine optimization of sites, using keyword density, titles, and inbound links so the site ranks highly in organic search engine results.

But it also leaves a gaping hole in branded keyword advertising. Keyword advertising isn’t just used for marketing, they are used for communications, reputation management, and to counter incorrect/false listings. Pulling the pharma companies out of this space leaves the door open to offshore pharmacies, class action lawyers, and alternative therapies. It also reduces the keyword cost, so they’ll be able to buy more visibility.

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