Targeting a Competitor's Brand Name with Keywords

Although my article and presentation about search engine marketing included a lot of detail, there were some things that I didn't include.

One question that I frequently hear is about the propriety of targeting a competitive product name. In discussing this topic, I need to provide a disclaimer that I am not an attorney, and no advice from me should ever be construed as legal advice.

As for FDA compliance, I think it is perfectly OK to target a competitive brand with SEM ads depending on the type of ads and the way the targeting is conducted.

So, first a bit of background on keywords. From my recent article:
Keywords: Words entered into a search engine by a user. An advertiser identiļ¬es keywords that will trigger the appearance of their ad and places a bid for their preferred keywords. 
Negative Keywords: Words selected by an advertiser that will prevent their ad from appearing.
So, keywords and their negative keyword counterparts function analogously to a media plan in traditional media, but instead of buying publications that are read by 18-25 year-old women, an advertiser places an ad in front of people who are entering certain words into their search engine. As such, the same rules that apply to appropriate offline ad placement apply to what makes for an appropriate keyword.

That doesn't mean anything goes, but it does mean that we don't have to recreate the wheel to determine whether it's appropriate to use certain keywords. We simply apply the same principles from the offline world to the online practice.

So, with regard to disease awareness ads (these are ads that lead to disease awareness websites that do not themselves make any representation about a specific product), it is certainly OK to use the name of any product that is approved to treat the condition in question to serve up such ads.

Of course, if the product is being used off-label to treat the condition, then the advertiser might want to be cautious about the use of that keyword, but note that I would not automatically say that it is inappropriate even then.

For example, if a sponsor is currently investigating a product for an indication where there is not any FDA-approved treatments, and in the absence of any approved treatment, use of Product X has become the only resort for treating Condition Y, then a disease awareness campaign seeking to increase public knowledge about Condition Y might include Product X among its keywords, though probably only in conjunction with other keywords or negative keywords to try to target those people who are searching for information about treatments for Condition Y, rather than the audience of people who are searching for information about the approved indication for Product X.

Regarding redirecting ads, black box ad formats, and reminder ads, it would certainly be appropriate to target a competitor's product if both products have an identical indication or an identical population for at least one indication.

To see why, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine a breakthrough drug that creates an entirely new category of treatment. There is a long history of such medicines. Now, imagine a medical journal dedicating a special issue to the 10th anniversary of the approval of the first medicine in that category.

Would there be anything wrong with placing an ad for one of the newer medicines in that category in such an issue? For me, that answer is clearly no. So long as the newer medicine that is being advertised in that issue has the same indication (or a significantly overlapping indication) as the medicine that is the subject of the issue, then it would be OK to place the ad. The ad itself would have to be compliant, regardless of where it was placed, and that would mean that if the ad mentioned the competitive product that was the subject of the issue, then the claims would be comparative and in need of appropriate substantiation, but there's nothing inherently comparative in the placement itself.

The most common objection to such targeting is that such targeting can only be done if there is a head-to-head trial comparing the two drugs. I believe, however, that this conflates the content of the ad with the ad's placement. An ad whose content is not otherwise comparative in nature does not become comparative by virtue of placing it against a competitor.

In the case of a reminder ad or a black box ad, the compliant usage of such an ad format guarantees that there's nothing comparative in its content.

But what about the content of redirecting ads? Well, that's another blog post, and I'll address it tomorrow.

What constraints would I apply to targeting reminder ads or black box ad formats at a competitive product?

I find Venn diagrams the easiest way to explain the different scenarios:

Scenario 1: Product A & B have identical indications
In Scenario 1, Product A & B have identical indications. As I mentioned above, I think it's perfectly acceptable for either product to include its competitor among its keywords and deliver a branded advertising message via a reminder ad or black box ad to the users.

Scenario 2: Product B population is subset of Product A
In Scenario 2, everyone who is indicated for Product B is also within the indicated population for Product A. This can happen, for example, when Product A has an indication covering adolescent, adult, and geriatric populations for a condition, but Product B only has an adult indication. My view is that Product A can use Product B as a keyword to deliver branded messaging because by hypothesis everyone indicated for Product B is also indicated for Product A. I do not, however, think the reverse is true. Product B should take precautions such as using "geriatric" and/or "elderly" as negative keywords if Product B wants to include Product A as a keyword.

Scenario 3: Product A & B have overlapping, non-identical indications
In Scenario 3, both Product A & Product B might be able to use their competitor as a keyword, but the questions I would want to consider would be things such as how much overlap is there between the two indications, is it possible to distinguish people searching for Product A who ARE indicated for Product B from people searching for Product A who are NOT indicated for Product B. In some cases, such as when products have multiple indications, these questions might be very easily answered. In other cases, it might not be nearly as easy to target the appropriate population.

In all of these cases, my concern is not with the content of the ads themselves. Instead, my concern is that intentionally targeting a population that is not indicated for using my product on label could be evidence of an intent to market the product off-label. So, before engaging in such competitor targeting, I would want to be certain that I could justify my targeting practices as indeed being limited to the currently approved population.

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