The MHRA’s #FakeMeds campaign is in its third year, and despite a modest £31,000 budget, is continuing to change consumer behaviour and dissuade members of the public from buying fake healthcare products online — particularly slimming pills, erectile dysfunction (ED) medication and, most recently, testing kits for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
In planning its communications campaign ahead of its 2016 launch, the MHRA identified audiences that were prone to buying fake products, with an emphasis placed on the types of medication commonly falsified and deemed a health risk.
Activity predominantly targeted 18- to 30-year-old men about STIs; men of 45-plus in relation to ED; and 18- to 30-year-old women about slimming medication – both women unaware of the risks, and those aware yet continuing to purchase dodgy meds. The campaign’s main aim is to reduce the harm caused to people by buying and using fake medicines and medical devices online.
The campaign incorporated several key messages: that more than half of all medicines and medical devices bought online are counterfeit or falsified; that there is a health risk in buying such products; that consumers should visit the FakeMeds website for guidance; that they should look for the MHRA-approved Distance Selling logo on medicine webpages, as well as the CE mark on medical devices; and that they should report fake products and their retailers online via the MHRA’s Yellow Card scheme.
Widespread coverage on a shoestring
#FakeMeds employed an array of platforms, from traditional to digital channels. A key consideration in selecting them, which followed a test phase to establish their efficacy, was keeping costs low.
Traditional media activity spanned statistic-rich news items, features, case studies and interviews, while social channels Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were targeted. Social activity included animations (see compilation below).
The Gov.uk website carried campaign webpages and news stories and the issue was even publicised in the storylines of high-profile TV dramas Coronation Street, in 2016, and Casualty in 2017. Influencers were also persuaded to convey messaging about fake healthcare products, with celebrities, vloggers and healthcare professionals with significant public profiles brought onboard.
The MHRA also worked with third-party organisations, whose own data was used to shape campaign content and whose channels were used to disseminate messaging.
Qualitative research conducted by the MHRA found that interrupting a purchasing journey could reduce people’s likelihood to buy such products, and that urging them to check the MHRA register of legitimate online retailers could reduce the impact.
As a result of the campaign, searches of the register increased by 33,706, marking a 16 per cent increase, and beating targets. Activity reached 55 per cent of its target audience (5.7 million 18- to 30-year-olds, beating the objective by 30 per cent). Secondary objectives were also beaten, with 61 per cent of media coverage containing key messages, and 80 per cent of content favourable in tone, seven per cent strongly, beating targets by 15 per cent.
At a cost of just £31,000 overall, equating to a cost of 0.005p per target consumer reached, the campaign has to date proved cost-effective. Given that the cost to society of a stroke – one of the side effects of fake slimming pills – is £45,409 in the first year and an additional £24,778 in subsequent years, every £1 spent on the campaign so far has achieved a return on investment of £125, the MHRA estimates.
Rachel Bosworth, the MHRA’s director of communications, said: "I’m so proud of my fabulous team and all they’ve achieved with the 'FakeMeds' campaign. The PRCA award is a great testament to how much success we’ve had in creating behaviour change with a very low budget, with only £7k on social media marketing and under £24k for staff time, which has ultimately led to improvements to public health."
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