Online Medical Advertising – Compliance Is Challenging.

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Never heard of regulations in medical online marketing ? You’ve decided to leap head first into the much-touted world of online advertising.  You have a smashing ad ready to go and because the statistics tell you online is the advertising place to be these days, that’s where you’re heading.  Notably, online advertising pundits are particularly enthusiastic about search ads and social media advertising – 93% of businesses now use Facebook as part of their online marketing strategies because it works.  You’re dead keen to be part of that 93%!  That’s a great aim!  A very worthwhile marketing goal indeed.  However, there’s just one fly in this ointment….

What industry are you in?

Ah that’s right.  You’re selling medical products or services!  In which case, you’re about to find out that the world of medical marketing, both B2B and B2C, comes packaged with more ethical standards and red tape than you’ll find in a government stationery cupboard!  Or it certainly seems that way.  Those nice before and after photos you’ve tastefully incorporated into your ad for example, or that comment about ‘curing’.  They’re almost certainly going to get your ad knocked back by Facebook’s advertising police.  The ‘cure’ comment certainly will.  That’s because the use of the term ‘cure’ in relation to healthcare and medical marketing falls foul of most medical advertising laws everywhere and isn’t allowed in online medical marketing for that reason. 

The before and after photos – whether they get through rather depends on what they’re before and after photos of.  If they can be classed as contributing to ‘body shaming’, that’s a no go zone in most cases.  Before and after photos of teeth whitening procedures, for instance, are not allowed.  Furthermore, if you’ve used an image, and why wouldn’t you – they’re proven to generate way more interest in a post, you can’t have more than 20% of it covered in text.  And so on.  If you’re not aware of all these intricacies around medical marketing and advertising compliance, you probably should enlist the assistance of a medical marketing specialist who is aware of them!  That way you can be sure your marketing material is compliant before you find out the hard way – when Facebook or Google knock it back.

Medical Marketing Red Tape – There’s A Reason For It

If you haven’t cottoned on by now, we’ll spell it out some more.  What for most other industries is a relatively straightforward process, is rigorously controlled and regulated when it comes to the healthcare industry.  The general populace, and a lot of the medical world, probably isn’t aware of half the regulations and ethical considerations involved in medical marketing.  And whilst it may be annoying, there’s actually good reason for the red tape – medical products and services directly affect people’s health and well being like very few other products and services do.  People with terminal or painfully debilitating health conditions are typically very vulnerable.  They’re good fodder for unscrupulous, unethical, or dishonest B2C marketing techniques that make pretentious and often unsubstantiated claims about products and services. 

For instance, Google suspended online B2C advertising for substance addiction rehab programs and centres in the US in September 2017 after reports of scamming and shoddy facilities were made public.  The suspension was extended to a global ban in January 2018.  Legitimate facilities in the US were allowed to recommence online advertising with Google in July 2018 but only after stringent vetting and authorisation policies were put in place.  Elsewhere, the ban is still in place.  Likewise, Facebook now only allows pre-certified advertisers to market these types of programs through their platform.  That’s just one example!

A Look At Some Medical Marketing Legislation Around The World

Every country has its own ideas about what its citizens should and shouldn’t be allowed to see when they turn on the television, check out what their social media mates are up to, or run an online search.  The UK for example has a nifty (old) law called the 1939 Cancer Act.  Section 4, item 1a reads as follows:

4 Prohibition of certain advertisements
(1) No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement— (a) containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof*

*Source – https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo6/2-3/13/section/4

That means it’s illegal for anyone to advertise treatments or ‘cures’ for cancer to the public in the UK.  Come to that, it’s illegal for any company to market any type of prescription drugs to the UK public, which leads us to the following…. 

Direct to the public (B2C) advertising of prescription drugs with product claims is banned in all countries except the US and New Zealand.  Canada allows the ads but they can only mention the product or the indication, not both.  In the US, it has a lot to do with the perception about what US citizens do and don’t have the right to do, say, know, and carry. 

Being fully informed about prescription drugs comes under that heading.  In New Zealand, it probably came about more by accident than plan – back in 1981 when the New Zealand Medicines Act 1981 was being written, direct to consumer medical advertising of prescription medications was unheard of so legislators failed to see it looming on the horizon.  And therefore didn’t address it in the legislation.  Pharmaceuticals were quick to spot the gaping loophole…and drive their buses through it. 

Somewhat ironically, advertising of stem cell treatments isn’t allowed in the US but is in most countries that ban the type of B2C marketing of prescription drugs allowed there. 

Back In The Good Old Days Of Medical Advertising….

Medical marketing was a whole lot simpler, and far easier to administer, when B2B and B2C advertising was limited to channels like print media, billboards, radio jingles, letterbox mailers, and television.  The ads could be physically contained within a country’s borders so it didn’t really matter what other countries did or didn’t allow.  Targeted B2B medical advertising also originally meant putting ads in industry specific publications like medical journals, or sending brochures and leaflets to healthcare facilities and medical professionals.  When those publications were subsequently filed for posterity in library archives, the ads were painstakingly removed to prevent ‘unauthorised’ eyes seeing them.  Ads were originally bundled together too so they could be removed without damaging the rest of the content.  The main body of the journal thus remained pure and unsullied by crass commercialism.

Then someone came up with the idea of an information superhighway, or with the idea of allowing the public to access one of the ones already in existence.  In 1991, NSFNET became available to public traffic for the first time and in 1994, the first online ads began appearing. 

Advertising would never be quite the same again!

Major online health portal WebMD opened for business in 1996, the first of many similar health related sites around the globe and just like that, health care went digital.  It also opened the doors to global online B2B and B2C healthcare advertising, which must have scared regulators like the FDA no end! 

However, and probably fortunately for regulatory systems in place at the time, whilst healthcare practitioners and many medical suppliers learnt enough about digital ‘stuff’ to build websites and set up social media accounts, that’s about as far as many of them dared venture.  For example, in 2008 when most industries were spending over a third of their marketing budgets online, the pharmaceutical industry was spending just 4%.  The rest of the medical and healthcare sector wasn’t spending much more either.

Much of the reason for this hesitation to leap into digital marketing can be attributed to the regulatory uncertainty around it.  Authorities like the FDA were slow to learn about and adopt the new technologies, much less regulate it, and that had a flow on effect.  

Furthermore, early mistakes earned the unfortunate perpetrators a hefty rap over the knuckles, which discouraged others from giving it a go.  The industry therefore, understandably, preferred to stick with what it knew best, and where they knew the rules.

Progress though waits for no person, or no industry, including healthcare.  Over the past decade, more and more healthcare businesses have taken the plunge and implemented digital marketing strategies.  As a result, digital has finally overtaken television as the preferred method of B2B and B2C medical marketing.  What it’s meant though is that digital behemoths like Google and Facebook have also realised that in order to stay out of big trouble with the governments of the world, they need to adapt and evolve their own regulatory advertising policies. 

To facilitate this, they’ve developed long, often changing lists of what they do and don’t allow to be advertised.  The lists are accompanied by frequently changing rules that set down the conditions under which they’ll accept and run ads.  Certain sectors, like the medical and healthcare industry, are particularly regulated to ensure compliance with a host of legal and ethical standards.  

Therefore, online marketing of medical and healthcare products and services, especially B2C marketing, is subject to very strict controls over what can and can’t be advertised, and how they can be advertised.  These rules are getting progressively more and more complicated as they try to keep up with the changing statutory policies around the world.  Even so, there are still times when they lag behind – governments and other regulatory authorities do not typically make a point of notifying search engines and social media platforms every time they update advertising legislation!

Are You Willing To Make Expensive Mistakes?

What this means for healthcare sector businesses is that there’s a bewildering array of legal and ethical considerations to factor into online marketing strategies.  Both B2B and B2C.  Mistakes can be costly, VERY costly.  Therefore, if you’re not 100% sure of what it takes to comply with all the red tape, you’d be wise to consider outsourcing your online medical marketing to someone who does know what it takes.

Therefore, if you’re not 100% sure of what it takes to comply with all the red tape, you’d be wise to consider outsourcing your online medical marketing to an agency like TopEngage who does know what it takes.