FDA Should Use New FTC Digital Guidelines as Guardrails for Social Media

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The Pharmaceutical industry may just have the social media guardrails it has long been waiting for.

While the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the industry, hasn’t yet issued its promised social media guidance, it may just defer to the newly-released Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) staff guidance document on digital advertising, industry executives are saying.

The FTC’s .com Disclosures guidance, issued March 12, underscored the need for marketers to make their ad claims “clear and conspicuous” and reiterated that the message, not the medium, will continue to define compliant ads. When it comes to disclosures, the same standards of responsibility and consumer protection apply to digital media as they do to print, radio and TV, the FTC stated. “Cyberspace is not without boundaries, and deception is unlawful no matter what the medium,” the agency stated.

The FTC document updates guidance from 2000 that didn’t address such issues as how to include disclosures such as Important Safety Information in tweets, text messages and on YouTube videos. In the past decade, mobile platforms and social media usage has surged, leaving marketers to navigate new media with old guidelines.

Highlights from the FTC’s new guidance:

  •  “Place the disclosure as close as possible to the triggering claim,” and in the case of “space-constrained ads that require disclosures, place the disclosure in the ad whenever possible”
  • Avoid using hyperlinks for disclosures: “required disclosures about serious health and safety issues are unlikely to be effective when accessible only through a hyperlink”
  • Avoid “conveying such disclosures through pop-ups, because they are often blocked”
  • If a disclosure is necessary to prevent an ad from being deceptive or unfair or otherwise out of compliance, but the disclosure cannot be made “clearly and conspicuously” the ad should not be run
  • “If a particular platform does not provide an opportunity to make clear and conspicuous disclosures, then that platform should not be used to disseminate advertisements that require disclosures”

The full text can be found here.

Hale Advisors believes the FTC’s guidance gives marketers clear direction for communicating in the digital space. There is no ambiguity here. The pharmaceutical industry is required to be responsible with its claims and disclosures; this now answers questions on specific practices such as linking.

It’s been 3.5 years since the November 2009 meeting when the FDA said it would issue social media guidelines. The FDA’s bailiwick is safety, not communication. Now we’ve got the top communication agency providing direction and leadership, and it’s now time for the FDA to get onboard to provide direction to marketers and communicators across our industry.  Perhaps, then we can stop waiting on guidance to develop innovation in the digital space and innovate within our clear parameters.

Zoe Dunn
Zoe Dunn, President and CEO of Hale Advisors, is a digital marketing and communications specialist with over twenty years of experience in the field. She has extensive experience in both the agency and commercial marketing side of the pharmaceutical, medical devices, and biotech industries.

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