Pharmaceutical 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 Federal Trade Commission (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 web provides medical information to those seeking resources or support, but when patients go online they encounter a “sophisticated and largely stealth interactive medical marketing apparatus.”

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 to consumers:

•   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 pharmaceutical companies to hone marketing campaigns; and
•   Contextually relevant advertising via online profiling and behavioral tracking.

These powerful 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. Many marketing techniques are designed to “tap into the concerns and anxieties of individuals” seeking health information online.

Companies named in the 144-page filing include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft,AOL, WebMD, QualityHealth, Everyday Health and Health Central.

Rob Rebak, CEO of QualityHealth, a firm which works with websites to provide tools, discounts and other content on behalf of pharmaceutical brands, 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.”

Moreover, the groups argue, unbranded websites and video channels, sponsored by drug companies, promote connections to pharmaceutical brands, and there is a lack of clear separation between editorial and promotional material.

A WebMD spokesperson told MM&M that, as part of its “journalistic responsibility,” it helps individuals readily distinguish between the two types of material and that, “All sponsored content on our site is clearly labeled as such.” The consumer health portal “has continuously met URAC’s health website accreditation standards since 2001,” including certification in areas such as disclosure, health content and privacy.

The complaint comes as pharmaceutical and other online health marketers are pressing the FDA for new rules that would allow them to expand digital and social-media advertising. However, “Before the FDA acts, it should await an investigation and a report by the FTC,” the groups state.

The petitioners want the FTC to assess the extent of consumer information being collected through pharma advertisers’ online data collection and usage practices and to look into the use of commercially supported disease-awareness sites and the connection to specific drugs. And, they insist, companies engaged in digital marketing of health products should be required to disclose online targeting techniques and methods employed, especially behavioral advertising and retargeting.

They also want the agency to work with the FDA and other agencies to develop a set of policies regulating the use of behavioral targeting, data collection and other digital techniques in the marketing of drugs and health-related products.