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Search Ad Warnings Leave Pharma in Online Void


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-04-15-2009
Volume 0
Issue 0

After last week’s flurry of FDA warning letters directed at companies marketing through search ads, industry is left wondering what can be done be done to target patients online?

The pharma industry is still reeling over the flurry of warning letters sent out by FDA last week to 14 pharma companies regarding their search engine advertising practices. In truth, few pharma companies have been vocal about their tactics when it comes to search advertising-the process of bidding for keywords to boost small text ads higher up in the ad list on search sites such as Google and Yahoo.

Google told Pharm Exec that it is not responsible for the content on the pharma ads, as each pharma company has its own account and control panel by which specifies what each advertisement says and what URL it will link to.

Last week blogger John Mack noted that another online advertising stumbling block might be the use of redirect links. This is the process of forwarding a visitor from the link they clicked on to an alternate link or site. This is commonly done when a site changes its domain name or if the original URL is too long to print.

Google’s Eric Obenzinger said that, with the exception of pharmaceutical firms, the search engine does not allow clients to use redirect links. In general, Google wants users to have as much information as possible before they click on links; this includes being able to see the exact site that they are going to visit. But FDA demands that pharma include only branded links if the rest of the ad makes no mention of disease state.

“Our existing ad policy was to allow pharmaceutical marketers to use non-branded, visible URLs as long as they own the URLs, and as long as the URL works and redirects to a branded site,” Obenzinger said. “The exception has been made primarily due to the regulatory environment of pharmaceutical advertising.”

Google has yet to lobby FDA on this issue, but said that it was open to having a dialogue with the agency. FDA has stated that it won’t reach out to vendors or agencies, only the advertiser. Google declined to release the number of pharma firms it works with or the amount of ad clicks are generated.

Not all marketers believe that redirects are the answer. David Ormesher, CEO of strategic marketing firm CloserLook, said that the practice is deceiving and could cast a bad light on pharma advertising on the Web. In the short term, he recommends pharma place an emphasis on unbranded health information sites. Rather than using a fully branded ad word or redirecting an unbranded URL to a branded site, pharmas should consider driving traffic to an unbranded site in order to funnel users to a branded Web site.

“What FDA has done has had a chilling effect on pharma e-marketers, and certainly has been a major slapdown to the handful of innovators within pharma that have been pushing FDA to acknowledge Web 2.0 and social media,” Ormesher said.

The main concern expressed by industry is the lack of guidance being offered by the government, and the need for FDA to step up and show some leadership. The general reaction is that FDA can’t set policy with negative rulings.

“Pharma has been asking the FDA and the search engine executives for guidance for several years,” said Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research. “While a majority of the industry settled on the ‘one click rule’-appropriate risk information one click away-it’s clear that is not going to be accepted as the industry standard.”

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