Redirecting Ads

Updated slightly to correct grammar and spelling, and to improve clarity.

In my article and presentation about search engine marketing for pharmaceutical products, I talk about a category of communications called Redirecting Ads.

These ads have the following characteristics:

  1. The ads link to a product site
  2. Do not mention a specific product
  3. Do not imply a specific product
There were many such ads present in the violative materials posted by the FDA in its 2009 enforcement action about paid search, but none of the ads were cited by the FDA as violative. Given that the FDA went out of its way to take such a massive enforcement action and made clear in subsequent statements that this was intended as a clear statement to industry about what was considered unacceptable in this vital medium, it seems clear to me that FDA's silence on Redirecting Ads was deliberate.

The meaning of the silence is debatable. Did FDA think that such ads were outside its purview (this is my view, BTW)? Did FDA think that such ads were unimportant? Did FDA believe these were not prominent enough to merit inclusion in the enforcement action? Did FDA not want to muddy the waters by including Redirecting Ads? Or was it some combination of these different factors? We don't know, and FDA hasn't said anything.

The reason such ads are important (indeed, I would say vital) to people making use of social media is that it can be difficult to include all of the information that FDA requires in a product promotion in certain space-constrained social media platforms. Redirecting Ads avoid the need for meeting all of those requirements by essentially asking people to go to a separate destination where the sponsor CAN meet those requirements.

There are, however, more questions about how to use such an ad format correctly and compliantly. We know from FDA enforcement actions in the past that simply omitting the brand and generic name from an ad does not mean that the ad is considered not to be a product promotion.* That's why I include the characteristic that Redirecting Ads also do not imply a specific product. How though do you avoid such implications?

One clear means of implying a specific product would be via description. You could, for example, state that the ad was for Pfizer's treatment for erectile dysfunction and without ever mentioning the product name, everyone would know which particular brand you were talking about. In the context of HCP-targeted communication, describing the mechanism of action for a product might be another way to clearly identify the product if only one such product exists.

Additionally, some tag lines or other brand assets have developed a prominence and a life of their own to such an extent that simply using the phrases that have become identified with the product constitutes a mention of the brand name or an implication about which product is being discussed. In this context, it is interesting to note some recent television advertising has been running without having received any FDA enforcement action. This advertising clearly leverages brand assets that are identified with a specific product, but nowhere in the ad is the product name mentioned.

I'm glad there is an ad currently running on TV doing this because regardless of this specific execution, it highlights that Redirecting Ads might be vital to social media, but they are in no way limited to social media. Indeed, this advertising format is frequently used in other product categories, such as teaser campaigns for movies, which do not reveal the exact nature of the product in the teaser communications themselves, but instead send people to another location (whether to visit a website or to call a phone number) to learn more.

One of the downsides to Redirecting Ads is that it unfortunately is also a technique used heavily in some of the less savory areas of online advertising and promotion. Indeed, that's one reason that some publications produce lists each year of the "most dangerous celebrities to search" because people pushing malware and viruses attempt to lure visitors by promising one experience in their search campaigns and then directing to other locations.

Recently, I have faced the question of whether Redirecting Ads are inherently limited because their success brings about the end of their utility. 

For example, assume a sponsor of Brand X becomes enormously successful running a Redirecting Ad that reads, "Check out www.conditionXtreatment.com to alleviate your worst pain."

The more people click on the link and see the ad (which by definition explicitly discusses a specific product by name and meets all of the requirements for being a product promotion), the more they begin to associate both the website "www.conditionXtreatment.com" and the phrase "alleviate your worst pain" with Brand X. So, does there come a point where using either of those pieces of content becomes synonymous with using the name Brand X itself, and thus the ad that is intended to avoid mention of the product begins to be viewed as implying a specific product and thus violating the third condition for a Redirecting Ad?

It might. Indeed, there are brands whose taglines and marketing messages are probably better known than the brand name itself, but I suspect this problem would only arise after a Redirecting Ad campaign has been in the market for quite a while and thus marketers could feel confident in investing in such campaigns, though they will have to keep an eye out for when the proverbial Rubicon has been crossed.

* Yes, I do realize how convoluted this sentence construction is, but I also think it's necessary to make the point this way.

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