Follow The Money: Study Finds Big Pharma Is Paying TikTok Influencers To Hook Teens On Drugs

The National Pulse

(National Pulse) “Pharmaceutical marketers have noticed the power of patient persuasion and begun to leverage ‘patient influencers’ in brand campaigns,” says a new studyby researchers at the University of Colorado, alongside the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

With the wider influencer-marketing industry expected to be worth up to $21.1 billion in 2023, the study published in The Journal of Medical Internet Research provides early insights into this growing new area, including its darker side.


“The bottom line here is that patient influencers act as a form of interactive direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, sharing their knowledge and experiences on pharmaceutical drugs with communities of followers in which they wield great influence,” said author Erin Willis, an associate professor of advertising, public relations and media design.

“This raises ethical questions that need more investigation.”

DTC advertising allows drug manufacturers to target consumers directly, rather than through physicians. This method of advertising emerged in the 1980s, and is only prevalent in the US and New Zealand. In these countries, about half of all people who ask their doctor about a new drug do so after seeing a television commercial for it.

“Health literacy and digital literacy are both concerningly low in this country [the US],” said Willis, who notes that consumers can fail to see the difference between a sponsored ad and a well-meaning, personal post.

“The fact that patients with no medical training are broadly sharing drug information should alarm us.”

The study comes amidst a social media frenzy about semaglutide, Novo Nordisk’s “miracle” weight-loss drug which is licensed as Wegovy (for weight loss) and Ozempic (for type 2 diabetes). Popular interest in the drug reached fever pitch when celebrities such as Kim Kardashian were reported to have used it. Only a few have actually confirmed that they’ve taken semaglutide, among them Elon Musk, who admitted to his 116 million followers on Twitter in November of last year that he had used Wegovy to shed at least 30lb.

In the case of most celebrities, however, we must rely on rapid weight loss and other tell-tale signs of semaglutide use, including so-called “Ozempic face” – a hollow look due to loss of facial fat – to decide whether the drug has been used. “Ozempic face” is just one of the main side effects being reported by ordinary users of semaglutide, many of whom have been “sold” the drug by one of their favourite influencers on Instagram or TikTok. Among other commonly reported side effects is explosive diarrhea. The hashtag #ozempic has hundreds of millions of views on Tiktok as at the time of reporting.

Patient Influencers: A First Look.

The new study included interviews with 26 social media influencers who not only regularly dispense health advice, including medication recommendations, but also suffer from a condition they provide recommendations about. Study author Erin Willis conducted one-on-one, hour-long interviews with the influencers, including sufferers of lupus, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, HIV, celiac disease, chronic migraines, and perimenopause.

Most of these influencers had up to 40,000 followers. Such so-called “micro influencers” are less expensive for advertisers to work with than conventional celebrities, and, according to Willis, research has shown they actually have the most influence on consumer behavior. Eighteen of the 26 interviewed – or 69 percent – said they had directly collaborated with a pharmaceutical company.

While some of the influencers posted company press releases, others read studies about drugs and explained their results. Some, but not all, were paid to post content.

Most of these influencers also claimed they were motivated by a desire to provide others with information they, as patients, had difficulty finding out. All said they strive to behave ethically, and some said they would never recommend drugs they hadn’t taken themselves and would always recommend consultation with a doctor.

A number of the influencers reported they were regularly sent private messages asking for detailed information about dosages and side effects. The private nature of these messages is a potential danger because it prevents proper vetting of what may be very personal claims about usage and efficacy.

“In an online community, there are other people there to say, ‘That’s not true or that’s not what I experienced.’” Willis said. “But with social media, a lot of the conversation happens privately.”

Willis also worries that influencers are stressing the benefits of medications without paying enough attention to the downsides. In 2015, Kim Kardashian posted about the morning-sickness drug Diclegis on Instagram, but was soon forced to remove the post by the FDA, which also sent the drug manufacturer a warning letter. Kardashian had omitted to list the drug’s risks in her post.

Although the Federal Trade Commission now requires influencers to disclose paid promotions, and the FDA has rules about what influencers can actually say in their posts, the truth is that managing and enforcing these regulations, especially when social-media posts are so often ephemeral, is no easy task.

Driving Worrying Trends.

Generation Z – the Zoomers – are the most mixed-up, heavily medicated generation in history. As if their problems weren’t bad enough, after three years of social isolation and bombardment over the coronavirus, social media throws up this concerning trend.





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