Written by Kassity Liu
Edited by Andrew Segna
Social media has taken our society by storm. From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, social media has provided individuals with newer and faster ways to communicate with one another. In 2011, eBizMBA estimated that 700 million unique users visited Facebook per month, 200 million users visited Twitter, and 100 million users visited LinkedIn. These statistics are staggering. The entire population of the United States, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, only totals 312 million.[i]
With the growing use of social media, many businesses in the U.S. have started to use social media as a method of advertising their products to consumers. Large conglomerates such as General Electric and Procter & Gamble have incorporated social media into their advertising and promotional efforts.[ii] Companies including AT&T and Dell have used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to communicate with consumers and market their products.[iii] In 2010, Facebook boasted that over 1.5 million local businesses had active Facebook pages.
However, unlike these companies, pharmaceutical companies have taken a cautious approach to social media. In 2008, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry only allocated a “tiny fraction” of “less than 4% of the more than $4 billion it spent on direct-to-consumer advertising” on social media advertising.[iv] Unlike advertising in other industries, prescription drug advertising is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that drug companies are only allowed to advertise their products under a regulatory scheme that is set up by the FDA. Although some venturous drug companies have chosen to invest their dollars in social media advertising before the FDA provides the industry with clear guidance, many have been waiting for the agency to publish a guidance document on social media advertising.
With respect to social media, the FDA has only published a draft guidance on “responding to unsolicited requests for off-label information about prescription drugs and medical devices.” The fifteen-page document addresses how companies should respond to online inquiries about off-label uses of their products, but does not provide clear instructions to the industry about how to advertise their products using social media. Despite not having clear guidelines on the use of social media, pharmaceutical companies need to start exploring this evolving area of technology. Working within the current regulatory scheme, the pharmaceutical industry can use social media not only for the industry’s own benefit but also for the benefit of drug users and the medical community. Moreover, even if pharmaceutical companies choose to avoid using social media, this would not stop physicians and patients from sharing information about the companies’ products online. Therefore, in order to effectively monitor and convey reliable information about their products to consumers, companies may have to learn how to use social media sooner or later. (more…)