Bioethics Blogs

Using Social Media to Sell Prescription Drugs

Jean-Christophe Bélisle-Pipon and Stanislav Birko consider how direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs using social media might be prevented by amending Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations.


What if Facebook, Instagram, Google+, or Twitter were to send you targeted sales information about prescription drugs that you’re already taking, or ones that you have recently researched online? A far-fetched scenario or near reality?

The use of big data is prevalent in marketing practices and it’s reasonable to expect the marketers of drugs, such as pharmacy chains and pharmaceutical companies, to try to negotiate access to large datasets of search histories, posts, likes, tweets, and geotagged information. Such data could be used to directly target potential customers who have demonstrated an interest in certain prescription drugs.

The most effective and profitable marketing strategy for pharmacies likely would involve targeted messaging to patients for a drug they recently searched on the internet. The goal would be to entice them to fill their prescription somewhere other than their usual pharmacy. Sufficiently important discounts might be required to motivate patients to change pharmacies, despite possible inconvenience (for example, opening a new file, having to travel further, changing habits). On the plus side, taking advantage of the offers could result in interesting savings for patients. Another potentially profitable marketing strategy might involve familiarizing patients with certain prescription drugs and frequently reminding them of their existence. For the pharmacy, both strategies could represent worthwhile general marketing practices if this gets customers in the door.

To the best of our knowledge, such pharmacy marketing practices don’t exist in Canada, nor elsewhere.

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.