Health Care Sponcon: Where Big Pharma Meets Instagram Influencer

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I’ve been reading about Instagram influencers of all flavors recently, from kid stars to travel bloggers. Enter the latest type of influencer marketing: health care sponcon. That’s right: pharmaceutical companies and Silicon Valley health startups are teaming up with social influencers to sell new drugs and medical devices.

“There is no doubt that this type of health care advertising-cum-storytelling is effective, and is frequently compliant with federal regulations,” writes Suzanne Zuppello. But is it ethical? For Vox‘s The Goods, Zuppello digs into influencer pharma marketing and investigates how the FDA and FTC are attempting to regulate this type of sponsored content.

Lesley Murphy, a former contestant on The Bachelor and current travel blogger, uses her platform to disseminate information that benefits people like her who are affected by a BRCA genetic mutation, which increases a person’s risk of breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. Murphy, who did not respond to requests for comment, documented her experience of undergoing a preventive double mastectomy on Instagram. Now she advertises ReSensation, a surgical technique launched in October 2018 that may help women undergoing breast reconstruction to retain some or all sensation in their breasts, to her 422K followers. Although ads for most surgical procedures are under the FTC’s purview, ReSensation’s use of human nerves also gives the FDA jurisdiction over Murphy’s Instagram and blog posts.

When asked how the influencer program was developed, Annette Ruzicka, a spokesperson for AxoGen, the company that developed ReSensation, said, “The only request of contributors was to write openly about their breast reconstruction process, and to also share factual information with their followers about the ReSensation technique. We shared publicly available information about the ReSensation technique to ensure that all content shared with the public was accurate. We provided no other content requirements for contributors.”

Murphy, who is not the only ReSensation influencer, has not undergone the procedure herself. But her followers may not realize this detail until they reach the end of her Instagram caption, where she directs readers to a blog post where, at the very end, she discloses her personal inexperience with the technique. Though this does not violate federal guidelines, nor those put forth by AxoGen, it does speak to the ethical obligation an influencer has to their followers.

The reality star’s Instagram post about the technique received almost 11,500 likes, giving ReSensation considerable exposure, yet Murphy omits disclosures required by both the FTC and FDA. She uses the term #partner to disclose that she is a compensated influencer, but the term is considered too vague, even for the FTC, for a user to clearly understand the relationship. She also fails to offer any information about the technique, disregarding federal guidelines to disclose risks and benefits that may impact patient decision-making. Instead, she directs followers to her blog where she discusses “a new technique designed to restore sensation in breasts after surgery,” lamenting the numbness in her breasts since her mastectomy and reconstruction.

Her blog post is where we finally learn the technique was not used on Murphy and cannot be used in conjunction with implant reconstruction, the most common and least complicated form of breast reconstruction, and the type of reconstruction Murphy underwent. Neither Murphy’s posts nor the ReSensation website discloses the success rate of the technique, instead focusing on an insecurity that has plagued mastectomy patients for decades: numb breasts.

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