Drug Companies Take Their Pitch to Social Media and IndyCar

Kimball, a diabetic Indy-car driver, shows his racing helmet and steering wheel. His helmet is designed so he can sip juice through a tube, and the steering wheel is equipped with a device to monitor blood sugar during a race
Scott Keeler / St. Petersburg Times / ZUMApress

On Twitter, professional race-car driver Charlie Kimball's nearly 1,300 followers monitor his every move: the countdown to key races; television interviews; dinner in Sonoma, Calif. It's hard not to be inspired by one crucial detail of Kimball's narrative: the 25-year-old is among the world's few professional racers to be diagnosed with diabetes. That's partly why Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical giant, pursued Kimball for an elaborate campaign in which he regularly tweets about taking two of the company's insulin products. "Just used my Levemir FlexPen," he tweeted last June, referring to Novo Nordisk's disposable insulin injector. Levemir appears on the front of Kimball's racing uniform, his car and on his official Twitter page, racewithinsulin. "It's a great way to connect with the diabetes community," he says.

The racewithinsulin campaign has turned Kimball into a rock star within the diabetes community. It has also made him one of the most provocative examples of how pharmaceutical companies are cleverly navigating the emerging, largely unregulated social-media space. The Food and Drug Administration has stringent guidelines on how drugs can be marketed in newspapers and magazines, and only in 1997 issued rules for broadcast media — chiefly, that companies must disclose basic information about a drug's known risks. But there are no such regulations for social media.
(See the top 10 Twitter moments of 2010.)

This month, however, the FDA is expected to issue guidelines on how drug companies market drugs, from Viagra to Ambien, on outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Google. For these companies, it's no small matter. Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project estimates that 61% of adults get health information online. Analysts say online marketing accounts for a growing share of the roughly $4 billion pharmaceutical companies spend each year advertising their products. In the first half of this year, companies overall spent some $5.7 billion on so-called search ads on outlets like Yahoo!, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a coalition of companies selling most online advertising in the U.S. "There's a lot at stake," says Jeffrey K. Francer, assistant general counsel for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America, a leading Washington, D.C., trade group. More at Time

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