Merck's $58 million payout should be a lesson to Big Pharma and its marketers. Although the pharmaceutical industry and PR agencies serving clients are eager to get into more social media work, this case will hinder those efforts.
Merck's multi-state, three-year-old case ended with the drug maker agreeing to settle allegations regarding TV ads for its painkiller Vioxx, based on traditional marketing tactics like direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads. While healthcare and PR pros all seem to be waiting for the US Food and Drug Administration to establish guidelines that will allow them to jump full-fledged into social media, the FDA will likely stay occupied with reforming traditional marketing.
This settlement, along with ads for Lipitor and Vytorin, put pharma and its DTC tactics on the table. Now it must submit all TV ads to the FDA for review and refrain from ghostwriting marketing material.
Congress, too, has cast its eye. A congressional hearing earlier this month sought to give the FDA more power to seek changes for DTC TV ads. Another oft-cited case is Lipitor's ads with Robert Jarvik, a heart scientist and researcher, giving medical advice.
For an industry that itches to break into social media, using questionable tactics in TV ads is one more reason for the FDA to delay its decision on other media.
Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak (both from Michigan) recently wrote letters to the top four pharma companies asking them to "commit to business practices that would reduce misleading and deceptive DTC [ads]."
Their answer was wobbly, at best. The companies' CEOs cited a lack of authority, but stated the use of PhRMA guidelines as policy. Until pharma can handle traditional marketing tactics, it's going to be a long wait before the FDA looks toward another medium.