Firm Faulted With Targeting Pharma Ads At Survey Respondents

  • by March 27, 2009

Real Age

The revelation that a company that enticed people to take a "Real Age" test sent emails based on their results on behalf of pharmaceutical companies sparked a range of reaction on Thursday.

The New York Times reported that nine million people who have taken the Web-based health survey and agreed to free membership were getting the targeted emails. Social media and the blogosphere were ablaze with posts expressing mostly shock and outrage but also some with "knew it all along" smugness.

Winklerella, a blog for "the later years,' exemplified the first category, with blogger Wrinkler posting a self-described "rant" which concluded, "This is wrong on so many levels."

Jeff Sovern of Public Citizen's Consumer Law and Policy Blog called for a Federal Trade Commission review of, saying the site's current privacy policy does not go far enough in explaining "what the company is doing with the information, especially given the sensitivity of medical information."



On the other hand BusinessWire VP Monika Maeckle tweeted, "Who's surprised?"

While most outrage seemed aimed at Hearst-owned RealAge, Jossip, in a post headlined "Big Pfizer is Watching," took aim at the pharmaceutical companies themselves. "When people use surveys to sell your phone number to telemarketers it's illegal, but when they do it for your personal information and email address, well, that's just how big business works on the Web," wrote Jossip blogger Drew. "Big Brother is watching, and making sure that you stay healthy."

Ironically, one place where nobody seemed to notice was a free afternoon Web cast, titled "New Adventures in ROI Measurement," that was sponsored by Medical Marketing & Media magazine in association with RealAge. In his presentation, Mike Wojeck, RealAge's vice president of strategic solutions, emphasized the importance of getting marketing analytics involved before online ad campaigns begin. But neither Wojeck, other panelists nor the moderator mentioned the day's big pharma marketing story.

The Pharma Marketing Blog, meanwhile, disputed the Times' declaration that "While few people would fill out a detailed questionnaire about their health and hand it over to a drug company looking for suggestions for new medications, that is essentially what RealAge is doing." The blogger, John Mack, pointed to a recent Epsilon study which found, as reported in Marketing Daily, that 38% of patients would prefer to learn about pharmaceutical products via e-mail from brands or pharmaceutical companies.

Consumers are also learning about health topics on Facebook and other social media, noted Reggie Bradford, former CMO of WebMD and now CEO of social media marketing firm Vitrue, who noted that "pharmaceutical companies aren't part of the community. They need to develop meaningful pages to discuss topics."

He added that with word-of-mouth and advice from friends and family so important in reaching medical decisions, that Facebook's "Newsfeed" feature has "real power." And, in light of RealAge's main method of gathering information, he pointed out that Facebook-based surveys are "hugely popular" marketing tools.

Summing up, Bradford said pharmaceutical companies have plenty of ways to reach consumers "that are opt-in and give them a way to participate." The pharma companies, he said, are "missing a real opportunity to magnify" the viral power of social media.

In addition to Pfizer, pharma companies implicated in the Times article included Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and Hologic.

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