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The rules for marketing prescription drugs are strict, and even beyond legal limitations, various platforms impose additional rules. For example, on Instagram, pharmaceutical companies may not post advertisements that mention drugs by name. But that limitation has created a vast opportunity for companies that seek to sell their products directly to consumers, because in avoiding naming the drug, they can focus more on the benefits it might offer.

This approach reflects a long-standing marketing precept, that what marketers must sell is not the product itself but what the product enables the consumer to achieve (i.e., do not sell the drill bit, market the hole that it will make). For prescription drug makers, that strategy is ideal, because they can highlight how great people will feel eventually—after their migraines have been diminished or their hair has grown back thicker. Such communications are far more appealing, and likely to prompt a click on the site, than depressing descriptions of struggling with a debilitating headache or a rapidly balding head.

In appealing directly to consumers, these marketing messages also take care with regard to the claims they make, to avoid invoking stricter legislative restrictions. In the United States, direct-to-consumer (DTC) messaging can be categorized as product claim, reminder, or help seeking advertisements. The first two are required to include information about appropriate uses, side effects, and risks. The latter is not. If the marketing message simply describes a problematic condition, without specifying the precise treatment being sold, the rules are less strict, even if the message implies that the advertised product could be helpful.

Thus on Instagram, DTC companies like Hims post references to March Madness to hint about the anxiety people might feel regularly. If someone suffering from anxiety issues clicks on the post, they enter Hims’s website, which contains more information about diagnoses and how its products might prove helpful. On the website, additional information about the risks and side effects also is available, along with a link to place an order.

In some cases, if necessary, the websites encourage visitors to obtain a prescription for the drug being offered. This scenario highlights a key feature of DTC drug advertising, in that these consumers are also patients, looking for an effective and safe medical solution to some problem they face. If they seek out professional assistance and carefully review cautionary information in other channels, we might assume that these consumers are receiving the appropriate amount of information, as is required for medical patients.

But that sort of information is not readily accessible on the social media posts, leading some critics to argue that the practices are problematic. When the help seeking advertisements are created by a particular drug company, even if they do not mention the treatment being offered, they encourage people to prefer that offered solution. Without a professional medical opinion or clear review of all available alternatives though, it is hard for social media users to know for certain that the proffered solution is really optimal for them and for treating their condition.

Help seeking advertisements and vague claims generally are accepted for consumers. But should they be allowed for patients?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do DTC pharmaceutical firms turn restrictions into opportunities when advertising on social media sites like Instagram?
  2. Should help seeking advertisements be subject to the same regulations as claim and reminder advertisements?
  3. Who is responsible for informing consumers about prescription drugs?

Source: Suzanne Zuppello, “Startups Are Selling You Pills through Instagram. Why Don’t They Say Which Ones?” Vox, September 25, 2019