Bioethics Blogs

Tailored Drug Ads: Creepy or Who Cares?

Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that drugmakers are working with third-party companies to link pharmacy records with online accounts, to tailor drug ads a person’s particular needs.  In other words, if you buy drug X at the pharmacy – the example drug trotted out in the Bloomberg piece is Viagra – a drugmaker will know you bought drug X, and will tailor online ads accordingly (buy more of drug X! buy drug Y, which treats the same condition as drug X! etc). The links between pharmacy records and online accounts, called “matchbacks,” are made without names changing hands, meaning drugmakers don’t know the names of the patients that they are targeting with particular ads.  But, nevertheless, a number of quotes in the article raise privacy concerns.  And when I tweeted this story, my spouse’s immediate response was “creepy.”

@pzettler creepy

— Matt (@haplito) December 10, 2014


But is it creepy? Or, at least, is it any creepier than how our other purchases are tracked?

Anyone who buys something online – or looks at something online – and then constantly sees ads for that product, should know our shopping is tracked quite closely.  And it’s not limited to online shopping, brick and mortar shopping is tracked too.  A couple of years ago, there was a really interesting New York Times piece about how Target, and other major retailers, collect (online and in-store) data on their shoppers, and use that data to sell shoppers more products.  One of the most salient anecdotes from the story was that Target figured out that a teenager was pregnant – and started sending her baby-related coupons – before her dad knew.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.