Should Pharmaceutical Companies Be Allowed to Do Content Marketing?

In 2010, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly sponsored a quiz about depression on WebMD. The quiz, which consisted of 10 questions, attempted to determine if users suffered from depression based on how their answers mapped to common symptoms. The outcomes forked into two paths: Those feeling five or more common symptoms were flagged as higher risk; respondents experiencing four or fewer were lower risk.

However, it soon got out that anyone who took the quiz received the same warning at the end, even if they had no symptoms at all: “You may be at risk for major depression.” That result was especially convenient since Eli Lilly manufactures Cymbalta, one of the most popular antidepressants on the market.

At the time, the controversy made the rounds on some blogs and news sites, and sparked an investigation from Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, who looked into the financial relationship between WebMD and pharmaceutical companies. But there were never any repercussions. WebMD eventually removed the depression warning from the results, and business went on as usual. It was even possible for users to see Cymbalta ads on the site as they took the quiz.

(Both Eli Lilly and WebMD declined interview requests for this article.)

Over the last seven years, consumers, brands, and publishers have all gotten more sophisticated in the way they approach content marketing. Users are more comfortable identifying and calling out conflicts of interest and overt subjectivity. Rigged quizzes don’t cut it anymore, at least not for reputable companies that can damage their trust by promoting misleading information.

As a whole, though, the prescription drug industry has slipped under the digital radar, proceeding into the world of content marketing with caution. The Washington Post reported that drug companies now spend significantly more on advertising than research, but most of those dollars go to traditional channels like television and print magazines. On the internet, you’re more likely to see a banner ad for a pill than a helpful infographic about treating a disease.

However, as TV viewing habits change and magazine subscriptions dwindle, these companies may soon turn their massive ad budgets to the internet. Yet if pharmaceutical companies can’t escape ethical concerns over credibility, the question remains: Should they be allowed to invest in content marketing at all?

A bitter pill

Sarah O’Leary worked in advertising for more than 20 years. She started as a copywriter, became a consultant, then a VP, and eventually launched her own agency. Looking for a new adventure in 2013, she decided to launch ExHale Healthcare Advocates, a for-profit advocacy company that helps patients deal with health insurers. (The company’s tagline is “We Take the Hassle Out of Healthcare.”) As someone who’s been on both sides of the issue, O’Leary has strong feelings about the way patients are duped by drug companies that have billions in revenue to spend.

“I don’t think anyone should go into a healthcare relationship of any kind giving away their trust,” she said. “I can’t tell you that I would point to any company and say, ‘I trust them implicitly’ or ‘I think they’re doing an incredible job.’ But I can tell you they’re doing a very profitable job.”

She told me she’s increasingly noticed more patients coming to her in deep debt as a result of taking brand-name drugs they hear about through advertising, instead of cheaper generic medication. A 2014 study published in Medical Care found that consumer-driven prescription requests, swayed by direct-to-consumer marketing, “had a strong effect on recommended treatments. About 20 percent of sciatica patients requesting oxycodone would receive it, compared to one percent of those making no specific request.”

“I do believe [pharmaceutical companies] have a right to inform and advertise,” O’Leary added. “But I think that the complexity of their drugs makes it nearly impossible for the networks and cable and media outlets to really govern them the way that they would a box of cornflakes or the efficacy of toothpaste.”


O’Leary’s suggested course of treatment is straightforward: Governing bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should mandate that drug companies reveal efficacy rates for their medicine in any ad or piece of content. “If you’re selling a car, and thirty percent of the time the car doesn’t move, should you have to convey that in your advertising… should you have to tell the people who are buying that car?”

Although such disclaimers seem simple, oversight gets more complicated when you consider that these bureaucratic bodies move slowly and don’t collaborate. For instance, the FDA only oversees prescription drug advertising, while marketing for over-the-counter medicine gets covered by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). These agencies are also influenced by pharmaceutical and health product lobbyists who spent more than $244 million last year—almost $100 more than any other industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If you’re selling a car, and thirty percent of the time the car doesn’t move, should you have to convey that in your advertising… should you have to tell the people who are buying that car?”

The FDA currently lists an exhaustive amount of rules on its website. Yet most of them have to do with naming products, disclosing side effects, and designing elements for ads “broadcast through media such as radio, television, or telephone communications systems.” The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations dedicated to prescription drug advertising, which is updated for 2017, doesn’t mention the internet once. There are a few advertising guidelines on a separate section of the site that go over best practices for digital channels like social media networks, but the fine print spells out that the documents “do not establish legally enforceable rights or responsibilities.”

So where does that leave digital marketers?

For the most part, the internet is still a giant gray area. WebMD, for instance, still runs plenty of sponsored content. The site practices basic native advertising etiquette, making the sponsor’s logo and name visible at the top of an ad. But it also reveals on these pages that “the sponsor has sole editorial control,” which blurs the line of medical research. You could be looking up objective information on tinnitus, a condition when someone hears constant ringing in the ears, and then end up on a native ad for Lipo-Flavonoid, a drug that treats tinnitus, in just a few clicks.

The new dosage

If WebMD’s content model peddles too much bias, the other end of the spectrum leaves us with too little creativity. Most major drug companies run social media accounts, filling them with perfunctory posts about corporate news or events that don’t give much value to the consumer. Some brands have blogs, but those tend to suffer from bland design and dry writing.

Since these companies are still figuring out digital publishing, pharma marketers have a huge opportunity to stand out while staying true to consumers.

Last year, Novartis, a Swiss healthcare company, spent approximately $9 billion on research and development, one of the largest budgets in the industry. To promote these findings, the brand has been publishing stories on its NERD blog (Novartis Explores Research & Development), which profiles scientific breakthroughs and the people behind them.

“We have the scientific firepower to do this,” said Jeff Lockwood, the global head of communications for Novartis. “And we should be telling that story because it’s who we are as a company.”

NERD may not compete with The New Yorker, but it is one of the few branded pharmaceutical outlets that pursues high-quality reporting and elegant design. It’s also an example of how a massive company can branch out from standard TV advertisements and free itself from corporate gridlock. Novartis still spent hundreds of millions on TV ads last year and, like just about every other major pharmaceutical company, it has been hit with flak over the years for emotionally manipulative commercials. But online, it’s operating with the mindset of a forward-thinking publisher. NERD publishes work from both freelance writers and internal contributors on topics ranging from curing leukemia to how giraffes stay alive with high blood pressure.

“We should be telling that story because it’s who we are as a company.”

“Not having a corporate voice means you have to be a little edgy with some things that you say and how you say them,” Lockwood said. “When the story mentions a marketing product or it’s in a certain stage of clinical trials, then [legal] gets involved. But otherwise, they’re like, ‘You know what, we don’t need to be involved.’ That was a liberating moment for both sides.”

Whether that liberation can scale across global companies and an industry that sells more than $1 trillion of drugs isn’t clear. But it’s a start. In the future, drug companies have plenty of potential to build storytelling hubs full of original surveys, infographics, short videos, and feature-length articles that talk about important issues.

“I think [content marketing] is as hard as we want it to be,” Lockwood said. “Using these types of platforms is important for driving a company’s reputation. And… it’s not for selling things. It’s really for telling that company’s story. Who are you? What are your values? Having that kind of voice is a very powerful thing for brands to engage with the people they’re trying to reach.”


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