Is Your Friendly Neighborhood Blogger Pushing Drugs?

Could the blogger next door be accepting dough from big companies to shill their products?

According to Kara McGuire, a staffer with the Minneapolis StarTribune, the answer is literally 'yes.'" Her recent story, "A New Recipe for the Web", described General Mills' efforts to promote its cake mixes and cereals by courting bloggers. To win good will -- and possibly kind words, the company treated 30 influential homemaker bloggers to an all-expenses-paid trip to Minneapolis to tour its campus, cook in the Betty Crocker Test Kitchen, taste new goodies, like snickerdoodle cookies -- that's the dough part -- and go for a dinner cruise on a nearby lake. Although the company doesn't pay bloggers or require them to say anything, much less anything nice, the investment paid off. Many of the invitees, according to McGuire, delivered rave reviews, even while disclosing that the company had underwritten the junket. Marta Darby of www.MyBigFatCubanFamily.com, for example, reported to her readers, "General Mills paid for my entire trip and treated us like royalty. Even if they hadn't, I would still gush about the fabulous treatment and I am still a huge Betty Crocker fan."

That mommy bloggers may be shilling for Big Cookie doesn't bother me. The worst that can happen is that the public pigs out on flour products -- which it's been doing pretty well without bloggers' help for decades. But what happens when Big Pharma starts to use bloggers and other social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to push its products? Hearing from your friendly neighborhood blogger that Meridia is great for losing weight -- never mind the high blood pressure that might occur as a side effect -- could be much more persuasive to than any TV commercials or magazine ads.

It may be early days yet, but drug companies are considering and being urged to get with the whole social media program. As an example, Tom Schwenger, global managing director for the Life Sciences Sales and Marketing practice at Accenture, the consulting company, points to Merck's "Take a Step against Cervical Cancer" spot on Facebook which is designed to promote Gardasil, the controversial vaccination given to teenage girls to protect against human papillomavirus (HPV). In addition to presenting some basic information about the drug, the site invites women to become "Awareness Ambassadors" who will inform others about the dangers of the disease and the virtues of the drug. Additionally, Merck offers a sign-up sheet that sends reminders to patients to have their second and third doses.

The necessity for such a site? Already Facebook hosts a number of anti-Gardasil groups, for example, Investigate Gardasil Vaccine Risks Now and Say No to the HPV Vaccine. "Pharmaceutical companies have to engage in that dialogue," says Schwenger -- and they have to do it in places where their customers hang out, which is not at drug company websites. Accenture's survey of 850 consumers found that only 11 percent go to them for information. In contrast, Manhattan Research estimated last year that over 60 million U.S. adults use health blogs, online support groups, prescription rating sites, and other social media apps. With such tools, Schwenger says that drug companies may be able to sell more without the immense expense of national TV campaigns and a dedicated sales force.

More on the Betty Crocker model, drug companies have been hooking up with "patient activists" who blog about their diseases. Roche, for example, which produces blood-glucose monitoring devices and has in its pipeline a new drug taspoglutide, which may help lower blood sugar levels, has hosted bloggers at "social media summits," all expenses paid, in 2009 at its headquarters in Indianapolis, and this year in Orlando. Ostensibly, Roche wanted to listen to patient activist suggestions (and between the two conferences, the company made some minor changes in its marketing). But even though attendees were not required to write about the summit or say good things about Roche, Allison Blass, a diabetes patient activist who blogs on LemonadeLife, said she came away feeling closer to the company. Roche has followed up by inviting bloggers to monthly conference calls where they discuss diabetes issues.

Even if disclosed, trips, payments and swag (could free blood glucose monitors be in the mail?), not to mention flattering attention, are bound to turn the head of even the most resistant blogger. When that happens, your friendly neighborhood opinionator could easily become an unwitting (or witting) participant in an effort to sell you drugs. And, unlike pharmaceutical companies which are required by the FDA to provide "fair balance," that is, a description of side effects or dangers that may come with a particular drug or device, bloggers can say just about anything they want. All of which suggests that consumers had better keep their eyes and ears open before they accept treatment advice from sources that may be anything but neutral.