Consumers may still see a barrage of ads featuring healthy, happy people
and pronouncements of "Ask your doctor about" prescription
so-and-so on television, but pharmaceutical marketing is quietly moving its
investment out of this medium. Companies are dipping their toes into the
bustling Internet, trying to gain a foothold in the rapidly expanding online
In February, Sanofi-Aventis launched a YouTube channel, "Go
Insulin," consisting of informational videos and patients' personal
testimonials about type 2 diabetes and insulin treatment, but it does not
provide direct promotional content for the insulin products the company
manufactures. AstraZeneca has also launched a YouTube channel, titled"
My Asthma Story," to promote its asthma drug with videos and
patient testimonials. Interestingly, neither companies' names are featured
prominently on these video Web sites. The AstraZeneca site was identified as
only "Brought to you by the maker of Symbicort."
These YouTube-based marketing campaigns followed those of several other
companies, including Johnson and Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, which started
their branded channels on YouTube in 2008.
YouTube is far from the only forum for online direct-to-consumer (DTC)
advertising. Companies have long used product-specific Web sites to
disseminate information about specific medications and devices to consumers
and health care professionals. However, online social networks such as
YouTube, FaceBook, and MySpace are drastically changing the ways people and
groups connect with each other. Messages are transmitted laterally through the
Web, rather than vertically, from the originator to the end user, and rely
heavily on word of mouth for a successful message campaign.
In recent years television DTC advertisements have been accused of false
representation and have drawn increasing criticism from lawmakers and
consumer-advocacy groups (Psychiatric News, January 16). Even
industry insiders began to question the viability of traditional DTC
The online media provide a far less expensive, more flexible, and more
interactive playing field for marketers than do broadcast television and other
traditional media. For example, YouTube channels can encourage patients to
submit their own testimonial videos that cost nothing to produce and appear
authentic. These advantages make online multimedia advertisements attractive
to manufacturers at a time when DTC marketing budgets remain flat or decline
in the current economic climate.
However, the return on investment can be much more unpredictable. In the
vast and rapidly morphing online world, how to grab and hold the attention of
fickle users is still the biggest challenge and one that still leaves
marketers scratching their heads.
Regulating promotions of medications in the new media poses new challenges.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Division of Drug Marketing,
Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC) is in charge of regulating all
marketing and promotional activities of pharmaceutical and medical-device
companies. In 2008, for example, the DDMAC sent a warning letter to Shire
regarding a YouTube video for Adderall XR featuring celebrity Ty Pennington
that "overstate[d] the efficacy of Adderall XR" and"
omit[ted] important information regarding the risks associated
with" the drug. Shire withdrew the video.
"DDMAC has been and continues to monitor the many vehicles that
companies use to promote their prescription drug products... including
magazine ads, TV ads, promotional exhibits at medical conferences,
Internet...," Karen Mahoney, an FDA spokesperson told Psychiatric
News. "Internet monitoring includes promotion done by or on behalf
of drug companies such as on companies' own product Web sites and their
placement of promotion on others' Web sites." She pointed to the FDA's
actions on the Shire YouTube video as an example of the agency's effort to
monitor such promotions. ▪