Pharma advertisers use an array of tactics to gather information about online health seekers in a way that is unfair and deceptive, consumer advocates have charged in a complaint filed with the FTC. Moreover, the advocates say, the agency should be allowed time to investigate these stealth practices and issue safeguards before the FDA issues rules for social media advertising.
Nearly $1 billion dollars will be spent this year by online health and medical marketers targeting US consumers, according to the complaint.
The groups issuing the complaint are the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), US PIRG, Consumer Watchdog and the World Privacy Forum. Several tactics, they argue, pose a threat:
- Condition targeting based on a person's use of online health information services and digital behaviors;
- Eavesdropping on online discussions via social media data mining, enabling pharmas to hone marketing campaigns; and
- Contextually relevant advertising via online profiling and behavioral tracking.
These digital marketing tools give pharmaceutical and online health information companies “unprecedented abilities to take advantage of consumers,” said Jeff Chester, CDD executive director, in a statement.
Companies named in the filing include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, WebMD, QualityHealth, Everyday Health and Health Central.
Rob Rebak, CEO of QualityHealth said sites that collect information don't necessarily run afoul of user privacy. It depends on where their ability to target consumers comes from.
“If that ability is coming explicitly from information that health consumers are directly volunteering to a company like QualityHealth, which utilizes a fully transparent permission-based model, then this is not at odds,” he told MM&M
in an email. “For other sites that may be using implicit information-gathering and -guessing techniques, often generally referred to under the umbrella of ‘behavioral targeting,' user privacy may be more of an issue.”