“Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?

This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News seriesBioethics in the News logo

By Robyn Bluhm, PhD

A couple of months ago, Kim Kardashian posted – and then quickly deleted – and then reposted – an Instagram advertisement promoting a morning sickness drug.

If this story sounds familiar, it may be because she did the same thing, for a different drug by the same manufacturer, in 2015. For the first post, the FDA issued a warning to the drug’s manufacturer, saying that the drug did not include information, e.g., about risks, required for pharmaceutical advertisements. Kardashian then posted a revised version that included the information missing in her initial post.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing of pharmaceuticals is not new. DTC marketing has been permitted in the U.S. by the FDA since the early 1980s, though it became much more common after 1997, when a number of restrictions on ad content were lifted. Since then, the use of these ads has greatly increased; in 2016 pharmaceutical companies spent $5.6 billion on ads, a 9% increase from the previous year.

Kim Kardashian Instagram post
Image description: Kim Kardashian’s Instagram post from June 20, 2018, showing a photograph of Kardashian holding a bottle of Bonjesta. Image source: @kimkardashian/Instagram.

Celebrity endorsements are also not new; they date back to the 18th century when Josiah Wedgwood used the patronage of the British royal family and other aristocrats to distinguish his china from competitors’. According to Megan Smith-Mady, one of the earliest uses of celebrity endorsement for pharmaceuticals had Mickey Mantel promoting an arthritis drug on TV talk shows. (YouTube actually shows him doing a commercial about athlete’s foot in 1976, though it’s best not to click on that link.) Smith-Mady also notes that the FDA responded quickly to this campaign, worried that viewers might not recognize that he was getting paid to promote the drug.

Since then, the relationship between celebrities and health care marketing has become more common – and more complicated. There have been many instances of celebrities appearing in commercials for medications (prescription or otherwise), and also of endorsing various medical devices and services related to health care.

Given all of this, Kardashian’s Instagram post is nothing new. Or is it? There is also reason to think that the use of social media in advertising for medical products may raise new ethical issues. For one thing, most countries do not permit DTC marketing of pharmaceuticals; in fact, Kardashian’s post includes a note saying that it is “for U.S. residents only.” Using social media is a way of getting around advertising bans.

Another thing to consider is the potential to target a younger market than can be reached with, for example, television or magazine ads. Not only do popular TV and film celebrities tend to have a strong social media presence and lots of followers, but celebrities whose fame is built entirely on social media platforms are becoming more common. One study found that respondents aged 13-24 were more likely to say that they would buy a brand or a product recommended by a YouTube star than by a traditional star. And while digital stars don’t (yet?) have the fame of “traditional” celebrities, top YouTube stars have Q scores (a rating of the familiarity and appeal of a celebrity) that are comparable to some traditional stars. Another study suggests that more children and teens consider social media celebrities to be role models more than they are influenced by musicians and actors.

Finally, I want to go back to the concern raised about Mickey Mantel’s talk show appearances – that it wasn’t clear that he was getting paid for his comments. In one sense, that worry now seems quaint; I think we are much more skeptical now about celebrity endorsements. And, in fact, some of Kardashian’s followers were less than impressed by her advertisement.

In another sense, though, new forms of online media do seem to complicate the relationships among information, marketing, medicine, and entertainment. Consider this: I first learned about the Instagram post via Bioethics.net, a site run by an academic bioethics journal. It linked to an article by Art Caplan, a well-known bioethicist (and one whose relationship with the media has been subject to attention). Caplan’s article appeared in LeapsMag, a new online publication focusing on news in the life sciences. On its “about” page, the publication hastens to describe itself as “an editorially-independent online magazine,” though you have to scroll down to find out that the reason it seems to be protesting its independence too much is that it was created by Bayer and is “the first magazine for mainstream readers created by a pharmaceutical company.”

But wait – there’s more. In looking online for information about Bayer and Leaps, I also found out that the company is currently feuding online with the makers of a new Netflix documentary, The Bleeding Edge. The movie documents problems in the medical device industry, and Bayer’s Essure contraceptive device is one of the central cases discussed (Bayer actually decided, for purely business reasons, to stop marketing the device the week before the documentary premiered. It’s worth noting, too, that Bayer released a “fact check” on the movie the day The Bleeding Edge premiered on Netflix, based on its April screening at a film festival.) And this feud is being covered by Variety, which started as a trade magazine for the entertainment industry, but now has a website and a Twitter following that vastly outstrips its print circulation.

What do I make of all this? I’m honestly not sure. I recognize that there are important differences between a documentary film and an Instagram post, even if both are reaching audiences through new online media. And I also recognize that there are arguments both for and against DTC marketing of pharmaceuticals. But it seems clear that the way that we get information about health and medicine is changing. Pharmaceutical companies are definitely paying attention to online media, so bioethicists should be, too.

Robyn Bluhm photoRobyn Bluhm, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 6, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: Antibiotics: No Clear CourseTo Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question


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2 thoughts on ““Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?

  1. This is certainly a thought-provoking essay. Here is a question for which there might be no answer right now. Are there any statistics associated with “increased sales” of celebrity-advertised pharmaceuticals as opposed to non-celebrity advertised pharmaceuticals? It seems to me that the central bioethics question associated with this practice is whether there is increased harm to individuals motivated to use these products AS A RESULT OF THE CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT. That is, individuals are less motivated to weigh thoughtfully the risks/benefits associated with these drugs because they believe (wrongly) that the celebrity person has done that for them. Or do we (bioethicists) soothe our own consciences by saying this is just a “buyer beware” matter; if patients/consumers are naïve enough to believe these celebrity endorsements, then they should just suffer the consequences. Thank you for your contribution. Len Fleck

    1. This is a really good question. I only found a couple of studies that looked specifically at celebrity endorsements for pharmaceuticals. One found that participants in a randomized study paid more attention to celebrity ads and found them more credible than similar ads that used a non-celebrities, but that there was no effect on behavioral variables. The other also found that people found celebrity endorsers more credible than non-celebrities. It’s not clear how that translates into behavior, especially as people would still need a doctor to authorize a prescription (though that is true of any DTC advertising of pharmaceuticals.) So it might be worth asking about celebrity influence on supplements and other (potentially dangerous) “wellness” practices – the obvious case study here is Gwyneth Paltrow. We also do know that celebrities have had a great influence on other health-related behaviors – think of Katie Couric and colonoscopies and Angelina Jolie and BRCA testing.

      Also, it looks like I can’t embed links in a comment, so I’ve put them here:

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