How influential are influencers? FDA plots study to measure power of Instagram celebs

Social media mavens do it for the gram, but the FDA wants to know whether consumers care one way or the other about influencers' paid endorsements.

The agency proposed two studies this week to look at four different kinds of influencers in advertising—celebrities, physicians, patients and online influencers. In the first study, participants will view print ads featuring a physician, a celebrity and a patient with either a full disclosure that the person was paid to appear or no disclosure at all.

The second study will tap 698 followers of an Instagram influencer with more than half a million and ask them to view posts for a fictitious endometriosis product labeled directly as paid ads; labeled indirectly, such as with the common hashtag #sp for sponsored; or not labeled at all.

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The intent of both is to look at the “role of the endorsement and payment status on participants' recall, benefit and risk perceptions, and behavioral intentions,” according to the filing.

The public now has until March 30 to submit comments on the proposed “Endorser Status and Explicitness of Payment in Direct-to-Consumer Promotion” study. An FDA spokesman said it “will start data collection after we receive OMB approval, which we do not expect before the fall of 2020.”

Celebrity endorsements in DTC advertising have been championed and criticized, and they remain a popular technique—either to draw a connection between the celebrity and a condition or specific drug or simply to draw attention to the condition or brand.

Online pharma endorsements have not been studied as closely, in part because they don’t happen as often. Social media regulations governing the practical or actual length of posts—especially on Instagram and Twitter—mean fewer celebrity spokespeople. And when they do happen, the influencer tends to speak up about disease awareness versus branded products.

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One notable exception that ended with an FDA warning letter was reality star and online personality Kim Kardashian’s endorsement for Duchesnay’s morning sickness med Diclegis. Her Instagram post in 2015 landed her and the pharma company in hot water for omitting the risks associated with the drug. The post only included links to a Diclegis website with safety information at the bottom.