Pharma’s Real World Compliance Challenges in Paid Search

Julia Pavone May 9, 2017

Can you imagine what it is like to approve marketing copy, and then find out after it is launched, that it violates federal regulations? This happens all the time to compliance teams who work for pharmaceutical companies. Despite their best efforts to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, they find themselves running up against the FDA and other federal regulatory bodies for noncompliance.

In the highly regulated industry of prescription drug advertising, there are many rules that need to be followed, especially when it comes to pharma SEM campaigns. With one in twenty searches on Google being health related, it’s no surprise that prescription drug advertising is highly regulated. Most of these rules come from the FDA’s guidance on Reminder Ads, but others are set by legal and regulatory teams within the specific pharmaceutical companies.

Slipping through the Cracks

Pharma compliance teams and PPC managers know the rules and have workflows in place to ensure ads meet all the requirements. But once an ad leaves their hands, both compliance and paid search managers lose control of how the search engines and their approved partners choose to display them. This is true in all industries, but in the case of pharmaceuticals the stakes are especially high. While a truncation in ad copy made by Google is annoying to the paid search manager of a retail brand, that same truncation can create serious regulatory issues for a pharmaceutical brand.

Other compliance issues occur when a channel partner fails to follow agreed-upon advertising guidelines or a third-party uses the pharma brand or products in their advertisements without authorization. And the worst part is that the pharma team won’t know that the ad is in violation of federal regulations until it is already up and live, for all to see. 

How can pharmaceutical companies make sure they meet the necessary requirements and ensure all of their ads stay compliant—regardless of the actions taken by the search engines, channel partners, or unauthorized third-parties? They need to be actively monitoring their paid search campaigns.

We have put together a list of three compliance risks to monitor when running ad campaigns for pharmaceuticals. These are some of the most common things that can happen to your ads. And without active monitoring, you may be unaware of them.

3 Common Compliance Risks

1. Ad Changes Made by the Search Engines

There are two ways that search engines can change your ads (or your partners’ ads), that can make them noncompliant: truncation and rearrangement. You need to monitor for both.


Now that Expanded Text Ads are standard, truncation, which happens when the search engine shortens the title to meet the size requirements, is much more common. Expanded Text Ads allow advertisers to run ads with multiple headlines and a maximum of 60 characters. As companies run these ads, some ads run in a truncated format. Below is an example of a truncated ad with the headline ending in an ellipsis. If this were an ad with a disclosure or the name of a drug with the generic name cut off, the ad would be out of compliance.


Although paid search managers may be adhering to the guidelines when they set up their campaigns and character limits, the auto-truncation comes down to sizing when the ads run. Google’s advice is to only run character headlines of 33 characters when there are strict legal or regulatory requirements.


When setting up ad campaigns, the search engines will often rearrange the ads to include one or two headlines, put the display URL in the headline, or combine the headline and part of the description line. For unregulated brands this type of action isn’t a problem, but it can be for pharmaceuticals. A major compliance issue is if a drug’s brand name is not accompanied by the generic name (a compliant ad is shown in the image below). The separation of these names can trigger regulatory action by the FDA. Additionally, this rearrangement can also create a truncation issue, as mentioned above, that the advertiser would not see.


2. Ad Campaign Changes Made After Compliance Review

The road to launching an ad campaign for pharmaceutical companies is not a quick and easy process. The marketing team will develop the creative and then send it to Legal or Compliance for review and approval. The approved ads then get sent back to Marketing to run. Once the campaign is launched, Legal or Compliance teams rarely have additional oversight.

While the ad may be in compliance during the siloed review process, it’s a totally different story when it starts running in the real world. A legal review can’t anticipate all possible compliance errors, like truncation or rearrangement mentioned above.

But it gets even more complex. Pharmaceutical companies use a variety of generic display URLs such as “Prescription treatment website,” “Medical device website,” “Prescription device website,” etc. (as noted in the red box in the image below). That makes it very hard to track down a brand’s own ads, since they can’t be traced to a unique domain from the SERP. Various advertisers can all show up with the same generic display URL, making it very difficult to monitor your own campaigns.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 3.06.45 PM.png Having partners run ads for you creates an additional point of disconnect that can decrease transparency. In the eyes of federal regulators, partners and affiliates of a company are seen as part of that brand’s marketing team and thus the brand is responsible for anything the partner publishes. This in turn means that partners must follow the same guidelines as the pharmaceutical companies. As a result, it is important for pharmaceutical companies with partner advertising to ensure that only approved ads are used by partners and third-party marketers.

3. Trademark Bidding on your Branded Keywords

Last but not least, monitoring other advertisers is just as important as monitoring your own brand and partners for compliance. Many advertisers show up in search referencing reviews and coupons for different prescription drugs—without having any information on the landing pages for those brands. The advertisers showing up on your trademark terms can throw a serious wrench into your marketing efforts—preventing customers from reaching your site, inflating your marketing costs, and misrepresenting your brand. I’ve included an example of what trademark infringement looks like in the image below. You’ll notice the ad includes the trademark of the searched-for brand in its ad copy, but was not placed by the brand itself.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 3.10.35 PM.pngIn Q1 2017, brands lost 49 million clicks to these trademark bidders, something that has increased by 56% Y/Y on Google. For more information on the scale of the trademark bidding, read our Branded Keywords Report for Q1 2017, which evaluates the paid search landscape on the core branded keywords of over 250 popular, consumer-facing brands.

How do you protect and remediate these common compliance risks?

Monitoring is the only way to be sure your ads are compliant once they go live. While manual monitoring is both time-consuming and incomplete, an automated paid search monitoring tool will reliably alert you to compliance issues and enable you to remediate them quickly.

Want to see if your brand has any compliance flags? Schedule a demo and we’ll show you what risks you face.



Topics: paid search

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