In time for the fall allergy season, Schering-Plough's prescription drug Claritin begins a sponsorship on cable modem service Home Network as early as this week. The alliance, which promotes Claritin in Home's lifestyle channel and within a health area on the service, is a further indication that pharmaceutical advertisers are primed to embark on a land grab of sorts, securing valuable Internet real estate via online sponsorship deals.
One industry source predicted that, based on the pharmaceutical industry's rapid adoption rate of online media for branding and consumer education purposes thus far, 1999 will be the year of the "7-digit" online media budget. The source, who works with numerous pharmaceutical companies, said it's highly likely that prominent prescription drugs and even over-the-counter brands such as Tylenol and Excedrin will amass $1 million-plus budgets for the purpose of purchasing online media next year.
Claritin is one of the most aggressive of the bunch. Last week, the brand secured an exclusive sponsorship deal on the OnHealth Network's site, OnHealth.com. As part of the deal, Claritin is providing customized allergy data to users.
Some drug makers are eyeing the opportunity to fund, either through a grant or sponsorship pact, the production of healthcare-related programming that would be available for broadcast on a variety of Web sites beginning this fall. Sites like OnHealth and Thrive would be likely
broadcast outlets, an industry observer suggested, with Dallas-based Broadcast.com serving as broadcast partner.
Numerous pharmaceutical companies ranging from Bristol-Myers Squibb to Merck have a long tradition of publishing their research for distribution to the health care community. With the Internet, industry observers feel, these companies will be able to deliver healthcare information to consumers. "They have a complex message they're trying to convey," said Robert Goodman, president and chief executive officer of OnHealth Network. "I think the pharmaceutical companies quite frankly are concerned with educating the public." With sites such as OnHealth.com, drug makers have been forging sponsorship deals so as to target their messages to specific demographics based on their health concerns.
Even though the online sponsorships' purpose is to educate, regulators will step in. As in the offline world, pharmaceutical companies' promotional efforts online are closely monitored by the Food and Drug Administration. Since the agency has yet to set guidelines for appropriate Internet marketing practices for the industry, the companies must follow the same strict guidelines that govern traditional media.
For example, prescription drugs cannot make any product claims without government approval. Also, if a company chooses to promote generic drugs, they have to be funded specifically in the form of a grant. As a result, the companies have been limited as to specific product information they can post on Web sites or in online ad units.