Big Pharmaceutical Companies Making Cautious Plays for Facebook Users

Pharmaceutical companies have begun creating a presence on Facebook characterized by control and caution. Why? Despite unclear regulations in the U.S. governing their presence online, they may still be penalized for marketing materials on the Internet. The result is, in terms of their Facebook marketing content, a mixed bag of sometimes disingenuous Pages and Groups, fluffy applications and tightly-controlled discussions.

In November of 2009 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hosted a hearing to examine this very issue: how to regulate drug companies’ marketing online — including social networks, blogs, podcasts, Wikipedia, etc. More than 800 parties tried to register to speak at the two-day hearing that included 69 speakers and 77 scheduled presentations; most attendees were either pharmaceutical or marketing reps, and the rest were a tiny fraction of consumers, non-profits and consumer advocacy groups.

According to the FDA, which regulates the promotion or advertising of pharmaceuticals in that country: “The continually evolving nature of the Internet, including Web 2.0 and social media tools… have raised questions and concerns over how to  apply existing regulations to promotion in these newer media.”

Currently there are no laws governing what pharmaceutical companies may or may not do online — aside from the general expectation that they disclose risk information alongside drug benefits. The last time the FDA broached the subject was 1996 and has since been based on guidelines for print marketing: where both benefits and risks of drugs must be presented side-by-side.

“The worry is the drug companies will find a way via the much more malleable and fluid environment of the Internet to promote their product in one-sided ways — and that’s not good,” said Steven Findlay, a senior health policy analyst with the Consumers Union who spoke at the FDA hearing. Facebook Pages for or by drug companies ought to include benefits and risks of drugs, he said, and be regulated by the FDA.

Several drug companies we saw on Facebook tried to mediate the info shared on their pages by closing their Walls, disallowing comments/likes and keeping consumers’ comments to a minimum by wielding tight control over Discussions.

The Facebook pages of Nexium (marketed to relieve heartburn caused by acid reflux disease) and Claritin Eye (eye drops for allergies) both closed off their Wall post to comments and likes. Both pages include information available on their product web sites.

“If they have a Wall, they can’t control what’s on it. If people complain about Nexium, then they’d either have to try to censor it, which would be potentially a problem, or they’d have to spend time responding to it,” said Diana Zuckerman, President of the National Research Center for Women and Families. “I would say to anyone who wants information about a medical product: Facebook is not the place to get it.”

Zuckerman testified at the FDA’s November hearing and said companies creating Facebook pages are likely to present information in such a way as to highlight the benefits without prominently pointing to the risks. Charging companies a fee payable to the FDA to monitor these sites would be the ideal way to ensure this doesn’t happen, she told us.

Claritin’s page has 6,600 fans and no place for comments, whereas Nexium has 508 fans and controls discussions by employing an app users have to allow access to before posting comments or questions. Nexium’s Facebook admin closely monitors these discussions, posting answers to questions or referring people to more information on Nexium’s web site.

Additional information on the pages include tabs for frequently asked questions, product information and risks, product savings programs, community guidelines for Facebook users (e.g., no obscenity or defamatory language) and tips.