Kim Kardashian taught us all a tremendous amount about the perils of using social media for prescription drug promotion this week, but the real message seems to have been missed by most folks.
The media, who can’t resist an opportunity to write gimlet-eyed hot takes about the reigning queen of famous-for-being-famous, widely reported this week’s news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Duchesnay, the maker of the morning sickness drug Diclegis, after Kim Kardashian took to Instagram to extol its virtues.
The FDA warning was utterly unsurprising. While Duchesnay and Kardashian took some pains to include a link to safety information, the overall content is clearly a violation of the agency’s longstanding policies and recent guidance. (A link to safety information, once called the “one-click rule” and heralded as the best way to ensure that online promotion offers a fair balance between risks and benefits, has been utterly rejected by the FDA.)
These are not new issues to us. In fact, our expert teams handle social for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies daily. This was a rookie mistake by Duchesnay — or a blatant risky one. With priopriety analytics – including our exclusive MDigitalLife database of social activity by physicians – we drive global pharmaceutical and healthcare-related communications decisions across W2O, including WCG, Twist and BrewLife.
So while the FDA’s rules may be overly strict, they’re no longer that confusing. The Kardashian post, then, reflected some combination of ignorance, recklessness or calculated cunning that the risk of an FDA warning would be worth the flood of attention.
Except that there was never a flood of attention, at least, not the important kind.
It’s impossible to know if sales spiked, but we can look at whether Kim’s post prompted certain behaviors. The easiest behavior to look at is Wikipedia, where site visit stats are public, and where it’s been shown that searches are correlated to drug sales. There, the page for “pyridoxine/doxylamine” (the chemical name for Diclegis) was visited 99 times on the day that she posted her endorsement, rising as high as 148 later that week, as the media scrambled to report on it. (“Morning sickness” barely budged from its historical average.)
Google Trends shows much the same phenomenon: a small spike, but one that looks far less impressive when other pharmaceuticals are included as comparators.
So the net effect was that a post that went nearly 50 million people, many squarely in the young-mother demographic, and received upwards of a half-million likes, drove only a few hundred people to research more about the drug on Wikipedia. As a point of comparison, Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy pushed Wikipedia searches for “mastectomy” from 1,000 to 300,000 in a day: a 23,000 percent increase.
To be sure, it’s possible that enough people skipped Google and followed Kardashian’s web links and the impact was far greater, but the fact that so many eyeballs sent so few people to Dr. Google should raise red flags.
The lesson here is not that FDA rules should be followed (they should, and we can help) but that social media impact can’t be measured on likes alone (we can help with that, too). The Kardashian post was designed to catch the eye of people that mattered when it comes to pregnancy. It turns out that the heads that really turned were at the FDA.