Is Prescription Drug Advertising Really Harmful?

In response to a recent article.

On October 21, many Americans celebrated “Back to the Future Day,” commemorating the day that film’s main character, Marty McFly (played by recent Advertising Hall of Fame inductee Michael J. Fox) arrived in the future.  Unfortunately the doctors of the American Medical Association appear to have misread the memo (could it have been the handwriting?) and recently voted to go back to the past by calling for an end to all prescription drug advertising.

In this case, the doctors have made the wrong prescription.  Far from being harmful, AAF believes that pharmaceutical advertising has provided a great benefit to consumers and public health.  By raising awareness of products available to treat many medical conditions, from lung cancer to COPD to, yes, erectile dysfunction, pharmaceutical advertising has resulted in countless patients making appointments with their doctors to learn more.  That can only be a good thing.

According to an AMA statement, “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when those drugs may not be appropriate.”  Good news.  There is an effective bulkhead that can prevent patients from receiving inappropriate or unnecessarily expensive medications.  That bulkhead is, of course, the doctors themselves who must prescribe the medications a patient receives. Doctors are the trusted advisor, in a position to explain what drugs or alternative treatments are the best way to treat to the patient’s condition.

Some physicians may bemoan having to tell a patient why a particular drug is not right for them.  But the fact is, many of those conversations would not take place at all without the advertising, and many of those patients would be left with untreated conditions.

Pharmaceuticals may be the most highly regulated and scrutinized category of advertising.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has powerful tools to censure any prescription drug advertiser that goes over the line in marketing a product.  As it happens, pharmaceutical companies often voluntarily work with the FDA prior to an advertisement’s release to insure that all claims are accurate and fair.  By including the required lists of side effects and potential harms, it is certainly true that no other category of advertising so completely presents the positive and negative attributes of the product.

Even if the doctors’ proposal was not unwise, it would still be unconstitutional.  Simply put, the free speech guarantees in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibit any bans on commercial speech, including pharmaceutical advertising.  That is not just the AAF’s opinion.  The Supreme Court has affirmed that commercial speech – as long as it is truthful and about a legal product or service – is protected speech.  There are no exceptions for speech about products that may be unpopular with some or speech that is inconvenient to others.

We hope that the doctors of the AMA will stop looking to the past and rethink their call to ban pharmaceutical advertising.  We invite them “Back to the Future” to embrace the positive attributes that prescription drug advertising has for their patients and public health.

About the Author

Clark Rector, EVP of Government Affairs, AAF

As executive vice president-government affairs, Clark Rector oversees and directs the lobbying efforts of the American Advertising Federation’s grassroots network of 40,000 advertising professionals in some 200 local advertising clubs and federations nationwide. Together, they have defeated ad tax proposals and other threats to advertising in Congress, nearly every state and numerous cities and counties. In his role as chief public policy advocate for the Federation, Rector meets with lawmakers and regulators to educate them about advertising and represent the industry’s position on important legislative and regulatory matters.  He has testified for the AAF before the U.S. Senate and Federal Trade Commission, as well as numerous state legislatures and city governments.

Prior to joining the AAF in 1988, Rector spent two years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Congressman Tom Luken of Ohio. He also spent three years working in local television in Austin, Texas. Rector is a graduate of the University of Texas and received a Master of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa.

Native Advertising: Creating a True Win-Win Media Environment

Journalist Resources published an article containing research and commentary on the increasing use and effectiveness of “native advertising,” a rapidly growing format for sponsored content. (Stefanie Knoll, August 19, 2015, journalists The article reports the growing design of ads to look like original or editorial content because “banner” ads are not attracting consumer attention, and the increasing use of ad blocking technology allows consumers to avoid online advertising on sites they visit with their laptops, iPhones and iPads.

The report emphasizes the controversy over native advertisers with proponents seeing it “attractive because it allows them to take advantage of the credibility and authority of journalistic outlets. By making ads appear to be editorial content, the advertisers are able to catch consumers off guard.” Critics contend “that it infringes on the the barrier that should separate the editorial and business sides – a deliberate division meant to protect and maintain journalistic independence.”

This is the debate that frames the ethical dilemma concerning native advertising. There are those who argue consumers do not need to know the content they are viewing is advertising/paid content. However, in my view, if consumers are unaware that the content they are viewing or reading is paid for advertising, they are being misled and treated unethically. Consumers could attach more credibility to the content if they believe it to be original/editorial content. Consumers know that advertising’s purpose is to provide information to “persuade” them to buy a product or service. That is not unethical, unless the ads are disguised to look like editorial content.

This is the position taken by the Institute for Advertising Ethics’ Principle 3: “Advertisers should clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.”

I do believe there is a win-win for consumers and marketers when native advertising is conducted in a truthful and ethical manner. Advertising content should be “attractive” and “blend” with the the media environment in which they are run. But, the consumer needs to know it is paid content.  This is the position taken by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB): “Regardless of native advertising unit type, the IAB advocates that, for paid native ad units, clarity and prominence is paramount.”  Here are ad disclosure tags being used today to disclose advertising and the advertiser for particular native ads: Sponsored By; Sponsored Post; Presented By; Paid Post; Promoted By; Ad; and Advertisement.

Taking into consideration that ad blocking is now a reality, treating the consumer ethical is critical. Consumers can install an app that will block all advertisements or one that will allow them to “whitelist” sites where they want to keep the advertisements they find attractive and useful. The answer is not to disguise the ad content because consumers will eventually learn and react negatively.

Rather, we should follow the advice of industry professionals that understand the strength of ethically produced native advertising. As an illustration, Jon Salm of MillwardBrown urges, “The key for advertisers will be to partner with the best publishers, and the key for publishers will be to follow the golden rules – confidently identify native ads as sponsored content, match the editorial tone, and create content that resonates with the audience.” “Getting Native Advertising Right”, January 15, 2015,

About the Author

Wally Snyder

Wally Snyder has devoted his entire professional career to working on advertising development, regulation and ethics. He served as a trial lawyer and as Assistant Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission before joining the American Advertising Federation where he served as president and CEO, from 1992–2008. Currently, he serves as Executive Director for the Institute for Advertising Ethics. Wally was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame® in 2009.

New Ethical Principles for Protecting Patient Privacy in Marketing

In response to a recent article.

Our ad industry should take note of the ethical standards being advanced for protecting the privacy of patients when marketing client case studies. The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) recognized successful case studies are one of the proven tools for encouraging addiction treatment, but require consideration to ensure patient privacy and to safeguard long-term recovery.

The NAATP’s revised code of ethics deal with the practice of misleading and deceptive marketing tactics, including those that could reveal a client’s identity. The principles include “hold sacred the shared value of our patients’ right to privacy.” A treatment provider may not reveal clients identities “in the form of photographic images, video images, media coverage, nor in marketing testimonials at any time during the client’s engagement in treatment.” Even after the treatment has concluded, treatment centers are urged to use caution in seeking permission to use testimonials, and some recommend against seeking and using testimonials from young clients not in a position to give informed consent to use their stories.

Certainly, those in our industry creating and disseminating marketing materials based ob patients’ successful medical treatment should adhere to these ethical standards. In fact, the federal government has rules and regulations protecting patients’ identities and health information.

The ethics behind the NAATP principles also applies to the need to protect consumer privacy in all marketing transactions. Our Institute’s Principles for Advertising Ethics include: “Advertisers should never compromise consumers’ personal privacy in marketing communications, and their choices as to whether to participate in providing their identity should be transparent and easily made.” (IAE Principle 6)

This ethical principle relates to marketing instances when we are using personal identifiers of the consume,r including photos, names and addresses. Also, consumers should be aware that their interests in products and services is being collected online and be given the choice of opting out.

A member of the NAATP ethics committee, Bob Ferguson, was quotes saying: “You want to apply the principles of common sense, fair play and the golden rule.” And as our Institute urges” “Do the Right Thing for the Consumer.”

About the Author

Wally Snyder

Wally Snyder has devoted his entire professional career to working on advertising development, regulation and ethics. He served as a trial lawyer and as Assistant Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission before joining the American Advertising Federation where he served as president and CEO, from 1992–2008. Currently, he serves as Executive Director for the Institute for Advertising Ethics. Wally was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame® in 2009.

Advertising Ethics: Contradiction in Terms? NO!

Gene Ahner in his book on Business Ethics states, “Six Services are considered critical in a global economy: accounting, advertising, banking, insurance, law and management consulting.” For me the business and societal purpose of advertising is to provide consumers with the information needed, including competitive performance and pricing, to make our purchase decisions.  Advertising does provide the basis for product and service improvement.  After all, if you could not inform consumers about your product why would you want to improve it?

To achieve its critical role in the economy advertising must be conducted in an ethical manner.  My ethical standard is “Do the Right Thing for Consumers.”  Specifically, claims must be truthful with clear and conspicuous disclosures so they are not overstated; treat consumers “fairly” depending on the nature of the audience, e.g. children, and nature of the product, e.g. alcoholic beverages; and not contain content that stereotypes people, or contains violence, including against women.

Today’s advertising requiring ethical diligence include not blurring the line between paid ad content and editorial/news (“Native Advertising”), being transparent as to the conditions, e.g. payment, affecting consumer endorsements on blogs; protecting consumer privacy and providing choice regarding information collected online; and assuring that children understand that the messages directed to them are advertisements.

Consumers care about ethics and will reward and punish companies for how it is practiced.  Their ability to do so has been enhanced by online consumer information power.  Recent research shows that 95% of consumers have shared a negative experience; the good news is that 87% have shared a favorable one.

Perhaps, the greatest incentive for the practice of enhanced advertising ethics rests on the shoulders of our industry professionals.  Gene Ahner, who I quoted earlier, terms their ethical decisions “Ethics by Achievement,” ruled by their feelings, and hearts, not their brains.

When you know how important your profession is you should want to do your best ethically and professionally.

About the Author

Wally Snyder

Wally Snyder, Institute for
Advertising Ethics, AAF

Wally Snyder has devoted his entire professional career to working on advertising development, regulation and ethics. He served as a trial lawyer and as Assistant Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission before joining the American Advertising Federation where he served as president and CEO, from 1992–2008. Currently, he serves as Executive Director for the Institute for Advertising Ethics. Wally was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame® in 2009.

Now is the Time to Build Consumer Trust Through Enhanced Ethics

Wallace Snyder

Wally Snyder, Executive Director, Institute for Advertising Ethics

Advertising Age reported on April 24, 2015, the dramatic results of a representative national survey of Americans commissioned by the 4A’s that found extremely low levels of trust for advertising.  Only 4% believed that Advertising and Marketing practice integrity, which 69% of the sample said means “always keeping promises.” (No One Trusts Advertising or Media, April 24, 2015;

The findings must be dealt with because Advertising and Marketing’s job is to build consumer trust for our brands and clients.  As David Bell, member of the IAE Advisory Council, puts it: “Trust is the currency of our business and Ethics is the engine of Trust.”  This important “Trust” is created, motivated and maintained by practicing enhanced advertising ethics.

Consumers are highly motivated to purchase by Trust.  Research conducted by Bozell over twenty years ago showed that consumers ranked “ethics and values” as the number-one factor in assessing whether or not a company can be called a “corporate good citizen.”  Research reported in the Wall Street Journal showed that consumers think highly enough about ethics that they are willing to pay more for an ethically produced product. And Leo Burnett understood this when he stated: “Ethics is at the center of how we express a brand.”

The Institute for Advertising Ethics, a partnership between the American Advertising Federation and the Missouri School of Journalism, has adopted eight Principles for Advertising Ethics that emphasize the importance of ethics for the advertising entity and its professionals, and that cover the current ethical dilemmas we are facing. Specifically related to the consumer research findings, Principle 1 states that advertising and editorial share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public, and Principle 2 urges that our advertising and marketing professionals exercise the highest personal ethics in the creation and dissemination of commercial information.

Principles and Practices with Commentary

Principle 3 urges that the line between advertising and editorial should not be blurred.  This relates to one of the negative research findings that only 4% trust “Brand-sponsored content that looks like it’s editorial content.”  So-called “Native Advertising” is now being offered by 75% of the nations’ publishers.  The point is that it can be done effectively and with trust with effective disclosure that it is paid content.

While the research is discouraging, it presents an opportunity for the advertising and PR industry to believe in the importance of building trust with the consumer through ethical and effective marketing communications.  IAE stands ready to assist with ad ethics classes, its certificate program and website page.

The Ethics of Social Media

By: Monica Helms, Ad2OKC/AAF Oklahoma City Ad Club

“Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.” — David Ogilvy

At last year’s ADMERICA!, I wrote about ethics and social media. For my first post this year, I was asked to write about both. Given that this is a rather complicated and sometimes sensitive issue, I decided to look to various resources for guidance on how I should frame this. More specifically, I looked at Mashable, Forbes, and even NPR’s Social Media Ethics Handbook. There were probably a few others as well, but let’s face it, I don’t exactly have the best attention span.

The one that caught my attention the most was the Forbes article, which listed five “deadly sins” of social media:

  • unreported endorsements,
  • improper anonymity,
  • compromising consumer privacy,
  • overly enthusiastic employees, and
  • using the online community to get free work.

I don’t know if you’re seeing what I’m seeing, but I think for me, at least four out of the five points in this article could be summed up in the following phrase: Honesty is the best policy. Nobody likes feeling deceived. But what constitutes deception in social media? Is running a contest or sweepstakes to get people to “like” or follow your brand in exchange for some kind of prize unethical? Is outsourcing your social media to a third-party agency or consultant unethical? Is tweeting a vote of optimism in the face of a tragedy unethical?

The answer is that no, it’s not necessarily unethical to do these things. But it can be. As Ogilvy stated above, it’s important to treat your customers the way you would want to be treated. Would you appreciate watching your friends become zombies for a brand if it came with the promise of prizes or giveaways? Would you appreciate it if it was happening to you–especially from a brand you wouldn’t normally care about? Probably not, right

What about outsourcing your social media? I vote that it can be–specifically if you’re not transparent about who the voice is behind the brand. In the social media world, your transparency and honesty is your credibility. The internet is not a place one should tread lightly–nothing you say can be considered private upon posting or gone once erased. I’m sure you can think of plenty of politicians and celebrities who has learned that lesson the hard way.

What about the last one? I’m not going to name any names, but more than one brand took heat for posting insensitively during the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. What about the brands who didn’t simultaneously promote their product with their condolences, or some other faux pas? By that I mean the brands who simply posted thanks to the first responders, or that their hearts were with the city. Was that unethical? I think some of you know exactly how you feel on this one. There’s no grey area for you, and regardless of which side you’re on, I admire that. But if you’re like me, this last one has you squirming in your seat a bit. Is it possible for a brand to send out heartfelt thanks or condolences in the face of a tragedy without necessarily being opportunistic? I don’t know if I have an answer for that.

Follow Monica @mkhelms