Government Reins in Drug Promotion on Facebook

Novartis Warning Indicates Social Media Will Be Tough Arena for Pharma

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a sign that internet advertising is coming under more regulatory pressure, the Food and Drug Administration recently warned drug company Novartis that one of its Facebook promotions violated government policy.

The FDA urged the Switzerland-based drug maker to take down a Facebook sharing widget for its Tasigna product -- a drug used in the treatment of leukemia -- on its website. A common feature on many websites, Facebook widgets, or buttons, allow any user to share a piece of content by posting it to the newsfeed of their friends on Facebook. In the case of Novartis, its Tasigna post appeared on Facebook with a link and a short line of text explaining the use of the drug. But that was a violation of FDA requirements for disclosing all risk information about a drug.

"The shared content is misleading because it makes representations about the efficacy of Tasigna but fails to communicate any risk information associated with the use of this drug," the FDA letter states. The government agency went on to clarify that any links to outside landing pages that do outline risk information is not a sufficient solution. "For promotional materials to be truthful and non-misleading, they must contain risk information in each part as necessary to qualify any claims made about the drug," the FDA warning states.

Drug advertising generally comes under stricter guidelines than other forms of advertising, as evidenced by the sometimes overwrought page-length notices in print ads, as well as the quickly narrated voiceovers on TV commercials. Online advertising is not exempt from such practices, which suggests that the government agency's ruling has much wider implications for online advertising at large.

As more marketers find ways into increasingly popular social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, they're also having to squeeze their messages into tight character constraints. Even Google paid searches are limited in size.

"This is their first shot across the bow about what the FDA is going to be looking for and what they're going to be expecting from pharmaceutical advertisers," explained Terri Seligman, a partner at law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein and Selz, where she specializes in advertising and marketing law. Ms. Seligman said this is part of a wider government trend of keeping watch over developments in online marketing. "Government is looking at advertisers and saying just because you're in this brave new world doesn't mean all bets are off," she said.

Internet advertising revenue from the pharmaceutical industry reached $22.7 billion for 2009, almost half of which comes from search advertising, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Google recently proposed a new standard format for sponsored links from pharmaceutical search advertising. A document prepared by Google executives Mary Ann Belliveau and Amy Cowan showed a mock-up of Google paid search links that included a short warning sentence followed by a "More info" link.

But according to the FDA's latest warning to Novartis, such a proposal wouldn't meet its threshold for including all risk information in any promotional material. Google declined to comment. Facebook would not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

In a statement, Novartis said it "will continue to have active discussions with the FDA to understand fully all of the concerns. We also will assess all of our web assets and materials based on these concerns."

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