Do links count? FDA to re-examine online drug ads

After many years on the back foot, the FDA has submitted a plan to study how viewers engage and process short-text prescription drug tweets and ads.

medicine pills in shopping cart

It’s back to the drawing board for the FDA.

After years of slow reaction to pharma marketing online, the agency announced this week a new research initiative to better understand how consumers process short-form posts and ads.

More precisely, the FDA is trying to determine whether links in tweets and Google ads can independently convey all the necessary information about product risk.

Under current guidelines, drug companies are required to balance the information they provide in character-space-limited posts. That means for a typical 140-character tweet, at least 70 characters must be dedicated to explaining risks and side effects.

Likewise for Google ads, which recently expanded its character count to allow for two headlines of up to 30 characters, followed by an 80-character description.

Regulatory change could be good news for pharma marketers, who have for a long time sought clarity on what they can and cannot do.

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In Monday’s notice for comment the agency acknowledged the need for more definitive guidelines:

The studies are designed to address the question of whether substantive risk information in the character-space-limited communications is effective in communicating risks when benefit claims are made, or whether a link to the risk information is sufficient.

To achieve this, the FDA study has been designed with four arms, two dedicated to Google ads and two involving Twitter. Two fictional prescription drugs will be marketed on both, a weight loss medication and a treatment for migraine.

Subjects in all four groups will be presented with short promotional messages that include a link to additional risk information. The variable under investigation is whether that risk information is also communicated in the actual ad or Tweet.

Results from the study could be a long way out  the preliminary notice for comment phase won’t close this year. Until then, pharma marketers must work within the FDA’s 2014 guidelines and contend with the possibility that there may be no ‘right’ answer for how to best communicate risk and reward, given the long laundry list of complications tied to FDA-approved drugs

The burning question right now, is who’s going to review, deliberate and approve an FDA trial?

Photo: yalcinadali, Getty Images