Pharma Product Placement Guarantees Viewers Get an Unbalanced View | Pharmaguy's Insights Into Drug Industry News |

Plenty has been written about a recent “disease awareness” plotline in ABC’s General Hospital that indirectly promoted ruxolitinib, the only prescription drug approved to treat a rare blood cancer called polycythemia vera (read “#Pharma Disease Awareness Marketing Infiltrates Soap Operas Like General Hospital”;


As some pointed out, non-branded “disease awareness” campaigns aren’t regulated like traditional direct-to-consumer ads, which are subject to explicit requirements including balanced portrayals of a drug’s efficacy and risks.


Coverage highlighted an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which oncologists Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody said disease awareness efforts “can lead to unintended consequences, including wasteful diagnostic testing, overdiagnosis, and inappropriate therapy.” They said “attempts may be necessary to regulate disease awareness promotions” including “collaboration and input from the FDA regarding the content of advertisements or disease awareness campaigns.”


But involving the FDA in Hollywood script-writing isn’t likely. The fact is, we’ve been down this road before. A similar alarm about the need for regulatory attention was sounded nearly a decade ago with the growing use of product placements in TV shows and movies.


Product placements proliferated as the spread of digital video recorders made it easy to skip commercials. Fortune reported in 2007:


So far this year, medicines like Vicodin, Cialis, Ambien, and Cipro have been cleverly woven into primetime plot lines more often than ever before. Between January and early September, pharmaceutical products and logos were seen or mentioned 705 times on broadcast and cable television, up from 630 such occurrences within the same period last year according to Nielsen Product Placement.


Creating a regulatory framework for marketing insertions wouldn’t be simple. For one thing… it would require extensive monitoring.


Another challenge is that money doesn’t always change hands, so the line between creative license and marketing is blurred. Data cited by the UCLA researchers said a direct payment occurred in just 29 percent of all product placements in 2004; most placements resulted from bartering in which companies provided the product, consulting and technical services, or the donation of items and services used in production.


The placement of posters featuring the Nuvaring contraceptive device logo in the background of the sitcom Scrubs was a notable exception. As noted by “Pharma Guy” John Mack, Organon, which manufactures the Nuvaring, acknowledged paying for the placement as a way to reinforce its brand image with physicians who watch the show (read “New Twist to Pharma Tchotchke Marketing: the Scrubs Affair”).


An FDA spokesman said staff “cannot recall a specific example citing content within a television program that was in violation of the applicable regulations for prescription drug promotion.”


But just because the FDA can’t or won’t police marketing insertions in entertainment doesn’t mean these tactics are a good thing for viewers. Whether or not they pay, companies won’t cooperate if the portrayal isn’t favorable to their products. The manufacturer has a hand in the creative process, which pretty much guarantees that viewers will get an unbalanced view.