CDD Asks FDA to Investigate Digital Marketing of Drugs and Health Products

For Immediate Release
March 1, 2010
Center for Digital Democracy

CDD Asks Food and Drug Administration to Investigate
Digital Marketing of Drugs and Health Products

Urges FDA to Develop Rules to Address Behavioral Targeting and to Protect Consumer Privacy

Washington, DC: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was urged today to protect the health of U.S. consumers by conducting a comprehensive investigation into the use and impact of digital health marketing techniques and technologies. Pharmaceutical and health marketers are already using an array of digital advertising techniques, including behavioral targeting, social media marketing, online video and mobile. The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), a leading nonprofit group based in Washington, DC, that specializes in consumer protection for the online marketplace, made its requests in Comments filed in the FDA’s proceeding on the Promotion of Food and Drug Administration-Regulated Medical Products Using the Internet and Social Media Tools.

On pharmaceutical websites, as well as on so-called “unbranded” sites, popular social networks, and interactive video channels, a digital marketing system designed to more effectively tap into the concerns—and anxieties—of those seeking health information has emerged. Few U.S. health consumers are aware that they are being identified, labeled, profiled, and tracked on the Internet while they search or access information on specific conditions or concerns. “The health and safety of U.S. consumers must be protected from inappropriate and potentially harmful use of digital marketing applications that have been embraced by pharmaceutical and health marketers,” explained CDD’s Executive Director Jeff Chester. “It is essential that the FDA craft regulatory safeguards for Internet-related promotion, especially since interactive communications will become the dominant form for the delivery of health information and advertising to both consumers and health professionals.”

The consumer group asked the FDA to work with the Federal Trade Commission and other appropriate agencies to develop a set of policies for regulating the use of behavioral targeting, data collection, and other digital techniques in the marketing of drugs and health-related products.

The FDA held two days of hearings last November on the role of the Internet and marketing for regulated drugs. But Chester noted that at those hearings, “pharmaceutical marketers purposely painted a sanitized, storybook image of social media marketing. Missing was data and information related to the powerful capabilities of interactive marketing to promote relationships with specific brands, including its ability to foster what has been called consumer ‘micro-persuasion.’ ‘Direct-to-Consumer Digital Marketing’ of pharmaceutical and health-related products requires the FDA to re-evaluate its standards for advertising practices, including what should be considered as truthful and non-misleading,” he explained. CDD commended the FDA for sending out warning letters to 14 drug companies in April 2009 on their inappropriate use of search marketing advertising.

CDD’s FDA filing is available at CDD is a nonprofit group working to educate the public about the impact of digital marketing on public health, consumer protection, and privacy. It has played a leading role at the FTC and in Congress to help promote the development of legal safeguards for behavioral targeting and other online data collection practices.