Pharma’s $1.7 Billion Internet Marketing Pipeline

On November 13th, 2009, Pharmaceutical companies flocked to a two-day FDA hearing into online drug advertising, which could influence their use of social media on the net. 1  Already, the explosive growth in online advertising has intensified public concerns: the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $1 billion on Internet ads last year and is projected to spend $1.7 billion on such marketing efforts in 2012, according to the Direct Marketing Association.2

Both Eli Lilly and Merck have received warning letters this year from the FDA accusing them of misleading online advertisements.3  But while the FDA scrambles to monitor online ads, who monitors the psychiatric-pharmaceutical industry’s use of front groups to indirectly market their products?

A Washington Post article of June 16, 2009 reported that an increasing number of pharmaceutical firms are turning to social media tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and MySpace, to market their products.  It cites how a community site sponsored by drugmaker McNeil called “ADHD Allies”—aimed at adults with ADHD—was established and offered an online podcast on financial advice and an “ADHD self-assessment tool.”4

British psychiatrist Joanne Moncrieff explains how this ultimately increases drug sales because only a biomedical approach is promoted: “Drug companies…provide funds for pro drug patient and carer groups and address advertising or disease promotion campaigns to the general public…This influence has helped to create and reinforce a narrow biological approach to the explanation and treatment of mental disorders and has led to the exclusion of alternative” treatments.5

Such websites do not mention company’s product but rather market the “disease.” In advertising, it can be accomplished through a strategy known as “condition branding,” where “mental illness” can be pitched just like cars, beer or laundry detergent.  Witness the brand name “bipolar” and “social anxiety disorder” that drug companies marketed at a fever pitch.

John Read, PhD, Psychology Department, University of Auckland did an analysis of 54 random “advocacy” groups for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the Internet. The results, published in the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation this year, found 42% of the websites received drug company funding. The researchers found:

  • “Patients tend to trust these organizations to act in an unbiased manner” but as earlier researchers argued in some cases “patient organizations have become a mouthpiece for the pharmaceutical industry in influencing regulatory authorities.”
  •  “Drug company influence within the area of mental health is prevalent and now extends to the Internet. This influence is not always transparent. This study suggests that drug company sponsorship of websites leads to a greater emphasis on pharmacology in the treatment of PTSD,” Dr. Read’s report concludes.6

ADHD Allies/ADHD Moms

In June 2008 Concerta was given an expanded indication by FDA and is now indicated for patients aged 6 to 65.7 In July 2008, McNeill Pediatrics—a subsidiary of Ortho-McNeill Pharmaceuticals—launched what they called an “unbranded group” called “ADHD Moms.” ADHD Moms markets the trademarked name “Mom-bassadors” to get mothers into the Facebook page. 8

  • McNeill spuriously claims “the group is not product-specific, nor are there any advertisements for the company’s ADHD drug Concerta (methylphenidate).” Well not directly, but providing material for the site is a Dr. Quinn, a paid consultant and speaker for McNeil Pediatrics. 9  April White, who also provides content is a paid spokesperson for McNeil Pediatrics.10
  • On April 22 2009, McNeill launched a second ADHD-focused Facebook page called “ADHD Allies,” this time targeting adults.  The “Allies” are board members of another front group Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), funded by McNeill.11
  • The pharmaceutical company has trademarked “ADHD Allies” and “ADHD Moms.”  ADHD Allies was responsible for a “2008 Harris Interactive survey of 1,000 adults with ADHD.” Not surprisingly, the survey found the condition significantly affects them. 12

Log onto The Bipolar Journey: Living With Bipolar Depression website and while it does show AstraZeneca on the home page, there’s no mention of its blockbuster antipsychotic drug Seroquel, approved by the FDA in 2006 for “bipolar.”  The site looks like a patient information site providing facts about the “disease” and misleadingly saying that it may be caused by a chemical imbalance—for which there is no evidence.

It refers people to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) that has received $23 million recently from at least 18 drug companies. The site shows that of 17 cites for the exhibit’s showing in 2009, 12 are conferences or events put on by NAMI.

It also links to The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a group that received close to $1 million in pharmaceutical company funding in 2007.

According to an August 27 2009 press announcement, AstraZeneca launched its interactive exhibit, endorsed by New York psychiatrist Janet Taylor. The press release does not mention that Dr. Taylor has financial ties to the company.13

In 2005, global sales for Seroquel reached $2.8 billion.  October 20, 2006, company announced Seroquel was FDA approved for bipolar.14 Within a year, sales reached $3 billion and then soared again in 2008 to $4.66 billion.15

By funding social media front groups that talk only about the “disorder,” drug companies can overcome fears of running afoul of FDA regulations that govern drug advertising and “are embracing social networks to help brand and position their companies in a positive light with consumers and practitioners.”  The top 10 drug companies using social media are: Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, AstraZeneca US, Bayer, GSK, Sanofi-Aventis, Roche, and Merck.16

1 “FDA Addresses Drug Ads in Online Social Media,” Red Orbit, 13 Nov. 2009.

3 “FDA Addresses Drug Ads in Online Social Media,” Red Orbit, 13 Nov. 2009.

5 Joanne Moncrief, in a “Study of the Influence of the Pharmaceutical Industry on Academic and Practical Psychiatry,”

6; Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 10:9–23, 2009

12 “Adults ‘Facing’ ADHD: ADHD Allies™ Offers Unique Online Community for Adults with ADHD on New Facebook® Page,”