When Drug Marketing Creeps into Television Programming

By Rachel Walden — May 21, 2008

As noted by the Wall Street Journal Health Blog, online searches for the drug amantadine spiked on Monday after the drug played a prominent role in the medical drama “House.” The drug topped Monday’s Google Hot Trends list as viewers went to their computers to find out more about the drug, taken by a character in the episode.

What viewers might have missed in their search results, however, is that while amantadine is one of four FDA-approved antiviral drugs for use in influenza, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend its use for this purpose. The agency states:

“…amantadine and rimantadine (the adamantane drugs) are NOT recommended for use in the United States during the 2007-08 influenza season because many recent influenza viruses are resistant to these drugs…As of April 5, 2008, 99.6% of influenza A (H3N2) viruses and 11.1% of influenza A (H1N1) viruses were resistant to the adamantanes. Because of high levels of resistance, CDC recommends that adamantanes not be used to treat or prevent influenza infections at this time. The adamantanes have no activity against influenza B viruses.”

Although the mention of amantadine in “House” may not have been paid product placement, it certainly drove viewers to remember the drug name and seek out more information. In some cases, drug placement in television sets or scripts has been directly tied to pharma sponsorship.

Last year, The Well-Timed Period noted posters for the NuvaRing on the set of Scrubs and wondered whether this was an example of “stealth pharma marketing.” It later became clear that this was exactly the case, with NuvaRing maker Organon Pharmaceuticals acknowledging placement deals with primetime programs including “Scrubs,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “King of Queens.”

Another source describes pharmaceutical product placement in ostensibly educational programs aired in hospitals.

As this release from UCLA explains, “The FDA regulates prescription drug advertising, but the agency does not have a specific policy regulating how drugs are promoted outside traditional TV commercials.”

Two authors from the university recently published an article on pharmaceutical product placement, including celebrity pharma spokespersons mentioning brand name drugs in interviews for outlets such as “The Today Show” – they explain that the sponsored nature of the discussion was “not revealed to the networks until after the broadcasts.”

The authors conclude by recommending development and enforcement of new regulations addressing these types of promotion in order to protect viewers from misleading, inaccurate, and/or incomplete information.

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