Pharmaceutical companies that want to advertise their drugs have been warned about the risk of using social media influencers to do this.
While the UK has strict advertising laws when it comes to marketing pharmaceuticals on TV, radio, or the internet, direct-to-consumer (D2C) publicising is allowed in the US and New Zealand.
Pharmaceutical D2C marketing is now creeping into social media, which means people from all over the world will be able to see the adverts when publicised by global superstars with millions of followers.
However, Erin Willis, an associate professor of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design at Colorado University Boulder, pointed out there is “virtually no research on it and very little regulation” in using patient influencers to promote certain drugs.
Commenting on her paper, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, she said: “It is going to help patients be better informed? Or is it going to get patients to ask their doctors for drugs they don’t really need? We just don’t know because no-one has studied it.”
Ms Willis noted that as influencer marketing becomes more prevalent, it is likely pharmaceutical companies will use them more and more.
Therefore, she advised: “This phenomenon needs more investigation as consumers spend an increasing amount of time online and engaging with social media.”
For a start, there is the “blurring of the lines” between what is opinion and what is an advert, with followers remaining unaware of whether the drug is effective or not.
While influencers need to now disclose whether they are being paid to post by including the hashtag #ad, it is still hard to tell what is true on social media. What’s more, internet users will not be able to gather the full information about the proposed treatment, including its side effects and the patient’s medical history.
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