FTC issues social-media ad rules. Will FDA finally be next?

Tired of sifting through FDA warning letters for ideas about online-advertising boundaries? You're in luck. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued new rules for social media and mobile ads.

Now, those rules don't apply immediately, because drug ads are the FDA's brief. But as John Mack notes at the Pharma Marketing Blog, the FTC's statement might goose the FDA into action. The FTC's approach could also offer some more clues to FDA's eventual decisions; they are part of the same administration, after all. And even if the White House's regulatory office lacks an official leader right now, it is still churning out regulations at a steady rate.

Here's the FTC's position: Full-disclosure rules apply even to space-constrained ads, such as those in the Twitterverse and on Facebook. Ads have to be labeled as such, and any required disclaimers or qualifications have to be included. The so-called fine print has to be easy to see and understand. And if the required disclosures don't fit, then the ad has to be rewritten. So far, pretty much as the FDA has indicated for drug ads.

But as Mack notes, the FTC also provides that required disclosures could be included at the ad's destination zone, in some cases, that is. And here's where the going gets murky, because it seems FDA takes another view--if you consider the raft of Google-related warning letters from 2009 to describe an actual point of view.

The FTC worries that one-step-away disclosure isn't enough for customers who might surf right over to Amazon or Cabela's or Net-a-Porter to buy the recommended product. But if the product is only available from the advertiser, then disclosures don't have to fit in a 140-character Twitter ad, because they'd be included on the advertiser's landing page, for perusal before an order was placed.

Drugmakers can't sell their wares directly, at least not without a prescription. And if FTC is so bent on disclosure--within the ad itself--for the advertising it regulates, then presumably, FDA would be too. Until FDA actually issues its own comprehensive guidance, "presumably" is about all we have to go on.

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