Vertical Restrictions a Slippery Slope

September 15th, 2010

Rewind, it is April 2009 and the FDA, in a surprising move, posted  14 warning letters to their site. The issuance of a warning letter is well within the scope of the FDA and DDMAC (Division of Drug Marketing and Communications) and would not, in and of itself be special, except for the fact that the ads discussed were sponsored paid search ads within Google, Yahoo or Bing and the issue at hand was the use of brand names by pharmaceutical companies in their search copy.  Specifically the issue was that you couldn’t have a branded search result from a Pharma company without the accompanying fair balance.  Once the letters were posted, pharmaceutical ads began disappearing from search results; companies pulled their ads to re-group and work with internal teams and agency partners.

In recent months, Google has created the Google pharmaceutical policy and a new advertising format to address FDA concerns: The Google Ad Format for FDA concerns.  Bing and Yahoo have not announced how they might approach the FDA guidelines.

The end result of this action was to reinforce to the marketing community that online advertisement is no different from other marketing media. It is not the media but the message. And treating branded searches like other media would result in a better experience for the consumer.

Is it a better experience?

It has been almost a year since the letters were posted and what is the result? Is there a better consumer experience or a better experience with the brand online?  I respond with an unequivocal, “no.”  Since within the health landscape only the pharmaceutical industry is regulated by the FDA, everyone except the owner, creator and provider of the branded product may use the product name as they will. So this action has created nothing more than a search environment where the consumer is protected from the only entities that are providing a worthwhile and efficacious treatment for their illness.

Removing manufacturers from searches related to their products in an effort to not mislead consumers is a slippery slope.  Let’s think about another regulated sector, say food manufacturing.   I would love to see a food manufacturer advertise their brand on Google, and in fine print have a warning label saying that a person “is at risk for e. coli if you choose to eat xyz product”, or something of the like. One could argue that this is a fair assumption and warning to the consumer. If the government is going to impose restrictions on one vertical to “protect” the consumer, then shouldn’t they implement the same practice across the board?

So, is the FDA really protecting the consumer? Are consumers really getting a better experience online?  I say no to both.It might have been a better option to discuss what the marketing industry can or could do before stating that they were using search in a way that puts consumers at risk.

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