Pharma companies spend about $6.5 billion on ads per year, and despite Facebook’s prohibition on using “private health information” in ad targeting, about $1 billion of that money ends up in the pockets of the companies. Big Pharma, it turns out, has devised some ingenious ways to get around Facebook’s restrictions.
According to a study by The Markup, Facebook’s ad targeting enables drug marketers to target potential patients by focusing on Facebook-defined desires that are related to their illnesses rather than their diseases. Big Pharma regularly used illness “awareness” as a proxy for more sensitive health information, according to the blog, which used a custom web browser to examine what ads Facebook served to 1,200 people and why.
If someone is flagged by Facebook for “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] awareness,” GlaxoSmithKline will display advertisements for Trelegy, a $600-per-month inhaler. The targeting capabilities of Facebook enable pharma companies to be even more inventive. If a user searched for “oxygen” or “cigarettes,” GlaxoSmithKline displayed advertisements for another COPD drug. COPD is caused by emphysema, which may develop as a result of years of smoking.
Merck selected consumers for advertisements for Keytruda, a cancer immunotherapy that can be used to treat anything from melanoma to lung cancer, bladder cancer, and head and neck cancer, using words like “chemical industry,” “Corona beer,” and “bourbon.”