Healthy Skepticism
Join us to help reduce harm from misleading health information.
Increase font size   Decrease font size   Print-friendly view   Print
Register Log in

Healthy Skepticism Library item: 18963

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Iskowitz M
Health sites' sly tactics stir privacy advocates to petition FTC
Medical Marketing & Media 2010 Nov 24

Full text:

Pharmaceutical advertisers use an array of tactics to gather information about online health seekers in a way that is unfair and deceptive, consumer advocates have charged in a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Moreover, the advocates say, the agency should be allowed time to investigate these stealth practices and issue safeguards before the FDA issues rules for social-media advertising.

Nearly $1 billion dollars will be spent this year by online health and medical marketers targeting US consumers, according to the complaint. The web provides medical information to those seeking resources or support, but when patients go online they encounter a “sophisticated and largely stealth interactive medical marketing apparatus.”

The groups issuing the complaint are the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), US PIRG, Consumer Watchdog and the World Privacy Forum. Several tactics, they argue, pose a threat to consumers:

• Condition targeting based on a person’s use of online health information services and digital behaviors;
• Eavesdropping on online discussions via social-media data mining, enabling pharmaceutical companies to hone marketing campaigns; and
• Contextually relevant advertising via online profiling and behavioral tracking.

These powerful digital marketing tools give pharmaceutical and online health information companies “unprecedented abilities to take advantage of consumers,” said Jeff Chester, CDD executive director, in a statement. Many marketing techniques are designed to “tap into the concerns and anxieties of individuals” seeking health information online.
Companies named in the 144-page filing include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, WebMD, QualityHealth, Everyday Health and Health Central.

Rob Rebak, CEO of QualityHealth, a firm which works with websites to provide tools, discounts and other content on behalf of pharmaceutical brands, said sites that collect information don’t necessarily run afoul of user privacy. It depends on where their ability to target consumers comes from.

“If that ability is coming explicitly from information that health consumers are directly volunteering to a company like QualityHealth, which utilizes a fully transparent permission-based model, then this is not at odds,” he told MM&M in an email. “For other sites that may be using implicit information-gathering and -guessing techniques, often generally referred to under the umbrella of ‘behavioral targeting,’ user privacy may be more of an issue.”

Moreover, the groups argue, unbranded websites and video channels, sponsored by drug companies, promote connections to pharmaceutical brands, and there is a lack of clear separation between editorial and promotional material.

A WebMD spokesperson told MM&M that, as part of its “journalistic responsibility,” it helps individuals readily distinguish between the two types of material and that, “All sponsored content on our site is clearly labeled as such.” The consumer health portal “has continuously met URAC’s health website accreditation standards since 2001,” including certification in areas such as disclosure, health content and privacy.

The complaint comes as pharmaceutical and other online health marketers are pressing the FDA for new rules that would allow them to expand digital and social-media advertising. However, “Before the FDA acts, it should await an investigation and a report by the FTC,” the groups state.

The petitioners want the FTC to assess the extent of consumer information being collected through pharma advertisers’ online data collection and usage practices and to look into the use of commercially supported disease-awareness sites and the connection to specific drugs. And, they insist, companies engaged in digital marketing of health products should be required to disclose online targeting techniques and methods employed, especially behavioral advertising and retargeting.

They also want the agency to work with the FDA and other agencies to develop a set of policies regulating the use of behavioral targeting, data collection and other digital techniques in the marketing of drugs and health-related products.


  Healthy Skepticism on RSS   Healthy Skepticism on Facebook   Healthy Skepticism on Twitter

Click to Register

(read more)

Click to Log in
for free access to more features of this website.

Forgot your username or password?

You are invited to
apply for membership
of Healthy Skepticism,
if you support our aims.

Pay a subscription

Support our work with a donation

Buy Healthy Skepticism T Shirts

If there is something you don't like, please tell us. If you like our work, please tell others.

Email a Friend

Far too large a section of the treatment of disease is to-day controlled by the big manufacturing pharmacists, who have enslaved us in a plausible pseudo-science...
The blind faith which some men have in medicines illustrates too often the greatest of all human capacities - the capacity for self deception...
Some one will say, Is this all your science has to tell us? Is this the outcome of decades of good clinical work, of patient study of the disease, of anxious trial in such good faith of so many drugs? Give us back the childlike trust of the fathers in antimony and in the lancet rather than this cold nihilism. Not at all! Let us accept the truth, however unpleasant it may be, and with the death rate staring us in the face, let us not be deceived with vain fancies...
we need a stern, iconoclastic spirit which leads, not to nihilism, but to an active skepticism - not the passive skepticism, born of despair, but the active skepticism born of a knowledge that recognizes its limitations and knows full well that only in this attitude of mind can true progress be made.
- William Osler 1909