Whether we like it not, celebrities have a huge influence on what we buy, where we go and how we live. Retailers often seek celebrity endorsements to promote a product or service, from meal delivery services to clothing and accessories. And Big Pharma is no exception.
The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) has launched two new studies evaluating the effect of third-party endorsements on how people perceive drug products.
In one study, 654 participants will be randomly assigned to view three types of endorsers (a celebrity, a physician or a patient) alongside a print advertisement for a fictitious acne medication. About 60 percent of participants will find a payment disclosure on the ad, indicating that the endorser was paid to appear in this drug ad.
This study will attempt to answer two questions. First, does the endorser type influence the viewer’s perceptions of the ad, drug product and behavioral intentions?
According to previous work by Bhutada and colleagues, expert endorsers (doctors) are seen as more credible compared to non-celebrity endorses (regular consumers). However, whether the endorser was a celebrity or an expert did not change study participants’ perceptions of how effective the drug ad was.
However, just because people call themselves a “doctor” doesn’t make them credible. Take Robert Jarvik, the face of Pfizer’s Lipitor marketing campaign in 2006. News broke that Jarvik was not, in fact, a licensed medical doctor, even though he appeared to give medical advice in both print and TV direct-to-consumer ads for the cholesterol-lowering drug.
The second question is, how might payment disclosure affect participant perceptions? As per the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), advertisers must disclose when they have any “financial, employment, personal or family relationship with a brand.”
Failure to do so would lead to a PR nightmare. In 2015, drugmaker Duchesnay received a warning letter from the FDA after Kim Kardashian, who has nearly 160 million followers on Instagram, promoted Duchenesay’s morning sickness drug, Diclegis, on her page without labeling the post as a paid ad or disclosing proper risk information.
The FTC also suggests that advertisers use clear and simple language to explain benefits and risks, and to ensure the disclosure is displayed prominently on the ad. Could the explicitness of the disclosure influence how consumers view an ad?
That is the focus of the OPDP’s second study. Not only will the researchers vary the endorser type (Internet influencer versus patient), but they will also assess three levels of payment disclosure: direct, e.g. “paid ad;” indirect, e.g. “#sp for “sponsored;” or absent. Nearly 700 participants will be recruited into this study, which will involve an Instagram ad for a fictitious endometriosis drug product.
In both studies, the OPDP states, “we are not divulging the identity of the celebrity in this public forum to maintain the integrity of our research process,” although participants need to be familiar with the celebrity or be following the Internet influencer in order to participate.
The gap between celebrities and consumers has gotten smaller and smaller with the advent of social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Moreover, consumers are increasingly turning to social media for health-related information. Indeed, experts are encouraging sponsors to leverage social media to increase patient enrollment into clinical trials.
The OPDP’s latest research can help guide best practices for industry as companies push the boundaries of direct-to-consumer advertising with celebrity or expert endorsements.