Late last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent strong warning letters to fourteen major pharmaceutical companies that the companies’ search advertisements, or the short text ads that run beside Google results, have to include risk information about each drug or else be removed. The letter cited examples of Celebrex, Propecia and Yaz, which did not include the precautions that the agency required. The drug manufacturer Merck, for example, was reprimanded by the FDA for making its drug Singulair appear safer than has been demonstrated. Many feel this is sign of increased vigilance in the new FDA administration.
Until the letters were issued, drug companies assumed there was a one-click rule, which required them to publish risk information within one click of their ads, or on the page that the ad linked to. The companies argued that the FDA is ignoring the realities of internet marketing; there is no way they can include all of the required information in the ads because Google only allows ninety-five characters for search ads. While companies are changing their ads to comply with the warning, executives say the solution is worse than the problem; advertisements are now even more misleading. Representatives for the FDA, however, say if there is not adequate risk information, or you overstate the benefit of a drug, that is false advertising; risk information is required on every advertisement no matter the medium.
Drug companies changed almost all of their ads after receiving the letters because they do not want to be on the wrong side of the FDA, however, the sense in the industry was that the letters were just telling what they should and shouldn’t do as opposed to giving strict mandates. Online advertisements are now using generic-sounding brand names to redirect to a brand’s website. Propecia, for example, now redirects links through a website called “hair-loss-medication.com” instead of propecia.com.
These solutions have problems, however, in that consumers may think these sites are neutral when they are really redirected to a sales site. In fact, Google will only allow pharmaceutical companies to redirect this way. Consumers will also rarely see the official websites in the sponsored search results and will instead see links to Canadian pharmacies and other unregulated herbal offerings.