This is a page from Twitter. Each of the <140-character postings in the middle column is called a Tweet, purportedly written by American racecar driver Charlie Kimball, who “partners with Novo Nordisk to prove his high performance career is possible with diabetes”.
This is what drug companies like Novo Nordisk call a “branded Tweet” and a “Direct to Consumer” (DTC) ad. All that very fine barely readable print on the left sidebar is about Novo Nordisk’s long-acting insulin called Levemir.
The branded Tweet does not mention any benefits of Levemir because it’s a reminder ad, which is not required to include side effect information if it does not mention any benefits. Instead, this reminder ad for Levemir lets Charlie Kimball act as the shill for Novo Nordisk.
The FDA doesn’t regulate Big Pharma’s reminder ads, and does not even have the authority to cite this Tweet in violation as a DTC ad, as they certainly would if it ran on TV. (These are the “Ask your doctor…” ads you’ve seen that rattle off dire side effects at the end: “…may cause feverweightgainhemorrhageconvulsionspustulescancer and death…”).
There are clear FDA guidelines prohibiting no-benefit/no-side effect DTC advertising on television:
“DTC television advertising that identifies a product by name should clearly state the health conditions for which the medicine is approved and the major risks associated with the medicine being advertised.”
Unfortunately, stodgy regulators are not yet up to speed* on DTC reminder ads that are running or soon will run on social media sites like Twitter – sites that are exploding in popularity and perfect target markets for drug company reminder ads. Current estimates claim that there are at least 6 million active Twitterites and an astonishing 14 million visitors. That’s just too ripe a marketing opportunity for Big Pharma to pass up.
Insider John Mack, publisher of Pharma Marketing News, doesn’t think much of driver Charlie Kimball agreeing to climb into bed with Novo Nordisk. He claims:
“A reminder ad of any sort – whether in print, TV, web, or Twitter – is a form of spam.”
He laments the missed opportunity for Novo to do some consumer education about diabetes (the Twitter link shown takes visitors directly to Levemir’s unintelligible package insert info – meant for physicians, not consumers).
John Mack had breakfast with Charlie Kimball recently to discuss his Twitter reminder ads. John says Charlie told him that he:
“…depends on his corporate sponsorships to keep his career going, just like any other racecar driver. He wants to make sure he does a good job for Novo in representing the Levemir brand. Although he claims that Novo does not tell him what to Tweet, nor does Novo edit his Tweets, Charlie has been briefed on how to word his Tweets whenever he mentions a Novo-branded product.”
John Mack’s take on this?
“I consider Kimball’s unabashed product endorsement Tweet a particularly sleazy example of Twitter spam. I sincerely hope that this Tweet is NOT used as a model for other drug companies who want to adopt Twitter as a marketing vehicle.”
*Update: On September 21, 2009, the FDA submitted a notice to the Federal Register calling for a public hearing on the Promotion of Food and Drug Administration-Regulated Medical Products Using the Internet and Social Media Tools.
© 2009 Carolyn Thomas The Ethical Nag http://www.ethicalnag.org
Brace yourself – we’re going to see lots more of this ‘sleazy’ marketing on social media.
I’m actually surprised we don’t see more of these. Maybe I just haven’t looked closely enough on Twitter to identify these as very thinly veiled marketing ads.
It shows how crafty the corporate world has to be to reach every possible target market.
I really enjoy your website and have recommended it to several friends.
Noah, I hardly think this is a ‘thinly veiled’ sales pitch. It’s right in your face! It doesn’t even pretend NOT to be a marketing pitch for this guy’s medication.
Tip of the iceberg. All industry must get onboard social marketing if they want to reach the growing avalanche of (mostly younger) consumers who rely on this type of communication.
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