January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Taralyn Tan Ph.D. Curriculum Fellow Harvard Medical

Can you believe how quickly the phrase “social media” has permanently embedded itself within our lexicon? I know that anytime I take a moment to marvel at the social networking phenomenon, I…well, I do just that: marvel. It is incredible to think about the ways in which Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and the myriad other ways through which we connect with one another over the internet have not only revolutionized social interactions, but also the ways that businesses reach out to prospective clients (also known as advertising).

So what happens when some businesses are more at liberty to take advantage of these novel advertisement avenues than others? In particular, while scientific supply companies have easily begun peddling their assays and reagents through outlets like Twitter, the highly FDA-regulated pharmaceutical companies have come face-to-face with some of the logistics associated with 140-character tweets and other space-limited outlets. Why the difference? Because the FDA requires that any drug advertisement include the side effects and possible health risks. While this is easily accommodated (via tiny, tiny, tiny print) in print ads and on television, it is a slightly more difficult task to fit all of that information in online blurbs that count characters, not square inches.

To many, (especially those at the pharmaceutical companies, I would imagine), the question becomes: how can we negotiate the FDA requirements in order to accommodate the restrictions imposed by certain social media outlets? Well, I don’t think that is the correct approach to be taking. Rather, I want to know the answer to the question: why do we think that every form of communication and social networking must be accessible to all parties? In other words, why do pharmaceutical companies think that they are entitled to the utilization of Twitter and whatever other source as freely as those non-FDA-regulated businesses?

This perspective may seem overly harsh on pharmaceutical companies, but the point that I am trying to make is, in fact, a general one that could be applicable to any business that is regulated or has special requirements when it comes to advertising, public relations, etc. The “I am entitled” attitude stems from the fact that social media, once viewed as a novel, “bonus” advertising opportunity, is now viewed as an essential component of a company’s business plan. Yet, as evidenced by those pesky health warnings for prescription medications, some products and businesses are simply more suited for social media advertisements than others. To insist otherwise is to argue that we must find a way to fit the proverbial square peg into the round hole, and to what point? The best possible outcome for (in this case) pharmaceutical companies is that the FDA backs off, giving the green light to place 99-character Google ads and 140-character tweets that sing the praises of medication X, while omitting mention of any of its potential negative attributes. And what service is that providing to the consumer? A deceptive one, that’s what.

So to pharmaceutical companies (and to any other type of business that may encounter similar obstacles), I say that you must accept the fact that some forms of advertisement will work with certain products, and some types won’t. (Consider, for example, the limited success of advertising the sale of fine works of art on the radio, as opposed to on television – where the art connoisseurs could actually see the paintings and sculptures.) And no, you can’t complain that it is “unfair” that other corporations can use certain social media outlets more readily than yourselves, as the idea of “fairness” is relative, isn’t it? If no pharmaceutical company can advertise any of its drugs in this manner, then isn’t that, by definition, an even playing field? Therefore, take solace in the fact that even though the Big Bad FDA won’t let you cut corners to tweet about your latest drug, none of your competitors can do it either. And that doesn’t sound half bad.

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