As you might know from seeing their advertisements on television, in addition to telling consumers what their drugs can do, pharmaceutical companies are required to provide information about a drug’s potential risks. This is called fair balance, and that may be a stretch for the term. For television commercials, risk information is often disclosed at the end and often in small print, after the benefits of the drug are touted. Print advertisements frequently have the risk information on the reverse side of the ad.
The advent of social media advertising has created a dilemma for drug companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If drug companies need more time or space to communicate risk information in traditional advertisements, they can purchase additional airtime or print space. So far, social media advertising has not been that accommodating for advertising. Each social media site has character limits for posts. Most famously, Twitter limits users to 140 characters at a time. Instagram allows 2,200 characters for each image, but only 3 lines of text are visible in users’ feeds. These restrictions have the FDA wondering can adequate risk information be communicated in character-limited platforms like Twitter?
The FDA recently announced plans to study the effectiveness of risk information posted on social media sites. The studies will evaluate whether social media posts should include risk information when claims about a drug’s benefits are made, or if a link to the risk information is sufficient. The FDA believes that study participants who see risk information within the post will retain that information better than those who see only a link to click for risk information. However, it is possible that a person’s motivations for viewing the post could affect the results. For example, someone actively searching for information about a drug is more likely to click a link for more information and therefore probably more likely to retain the risk and benefit information, while a person who simply happens across a social media posting is much less likely to follow a link to see risk information. The FDA will use the findings from these studies to issue guidelines on promoting pharmaceutical products on social media.
For now, some social media sites have their own policies in place concerning pharmaceutical advertising. Twitter restricts the promotion of prescription drugs and other health supplements. Facebook, on the other hand, has developed new features designed to help pharmaceutical companies better convey risk information on its platform, including an ad with automatically scrolling risk information.
The FDA’s guidance on this issue will be extremely important. Consumers need to be fully informed of the risks of the medications they take, regardless of the number of characters required.
Sources: FDA, Law360.com, Twitter, StatNews.com
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