FDA cracks down on search-engine ads

Everybody knows Internet advertising is hot. Traditional media is watching its share of ad dollars decline again and again. Meanwhile, the digital domain's share is growing. Right now, pharma has between 5 percent and 10 percent of their marketing budgets in digital, and the share is growing, DMNews notes.

But Internet advertising has its pitfalls. Lately, FDA has cited a series of drugmakers for online video that didn't weigh in heavily enough on the side effects and risks of drugs. And now, the agency is cracking down on search engine ads. You know, the briefer-than-brief liners that pop up when you google "migraine" or "congestive heart failure" or "insomnia."

Fourteen companies, including Biogen Idec, Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche--basically a who's who of pharma--got warning letters from the FDA about those "sponsored links." There's not much room to maneuver in that sort of space, as you know. And the links are just that--they go to the advertised drug's website where plenty of information is available. But still, FDA didn't like the fact that Biogen's Tysabri search engine ads--e.g., "A Multiple Sclerosis Treatment That's Different from the Others"--didn't mention the drug's connection to the potentially fatal brain infection PML. And FDA thinks Sanofi's search links "misleadingly suggest Plavix is safer than has been demonstrated."

This spate of warnings surely won't be the last. And it points out the pitfalls of online advertising, where the forms and approaches are quite different from the traditional 30-second TV spot or two-page magazine ad with plenty of space for fine print. Figuring out how to market effectively online--and satisfy the FDA, too: That's going to be a challenge, but one the industry has to meet, and soon.

- see the DMNews piece
- read the Wall Street Journal story