Four public interest groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission Tuesday urging the agency to investigate whether those offering online health information and services are engaging in unfair and deceptive advertising practices.
In their complaint, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the World Privacy Forum alleged that groups and firms engaged in health marketing have established a "stealth interactive" marketing campaign aimed at promoting the use of specific brand drugs and persuading consumers to seek treatments for possible health conditions. In addition, the groups also claim that these health marketers aim to collect personal information from consumers by offering free e-newsletters on medical issues and discounts for prescription drugs and services.
They also claimed that health marketing organizations also are collecting data from consumers about specific health concerns they may seek information about and tracking their other Web activities to target medical-related ads at them. In addition, the groups say there is a not a clear separation between information that is supposed to be editorial content and promotional material by sponsors and advertisers.
"There is a failure to adequately disclose the relationship and role of advertisers and sponsors on leading health information sites," according to the complaint. Among the examples it provides is WebMD's disclosure on its website that says users can trust our "content is timely and credible." But the complaint points to information in WebMD's annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission that says, it develops "sponsored programs that target specific groups of health-involved consumers, clinically active physicians and other healthcare professionals and place these programs on the most relevant areas of The WebMD Health Network so that our advertisers and sponsors are able to reach, educate and inform these target audiences."
WebMD spokesman Adam Grossberg responded to the complaint, saying "As the most visible and trusted brand for health and wellness information, WebMD places the trusted relationship we have with our users first. We have always been transparent and direct with our users. At the same time, WebMD's journalistic responsibility is to make a clear distinction between news and other information, so that individuals can readily distinguish independent editorial information from paid, promotional information. All sponsored content on our site is clearly labeled as such."
He added that WebMD has "continuously met" health website accreditation standards that include disclosure, health content, security, privacy and quality oversight.
In addition to WebMD, other firms named in the complaint include AOL, Everyday Health, Google, Health Central, Microsoft, Quality Health, and Yahoo.
The groups called on the FTC to investigate the data collection usage practices of drug advertisers; require companies engaged in online marketing of health products to provide information on the kinds of techniques and methods they use; review the privacy policies of health and drug maker websites; and probe whether health bloggers who claim to be independent have violated the FTC's "endorsement" guidelines by accepting money from drug makers and others.
"By using powerful digital marketing tools, pharmaceutical and online health information companies now have unprecedented abilities to take advantage of consumers," Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester said in a statement. "Many of the new interactive marketing techniques have been purposely designed to tap into the concerns and anxieties of individuals who are going online to seek health information."