Facebook “Pokes” Pharma Companies, Telehealth, and Online Pharmacies

August 6, 2021By Jeffrey N. Wasserstein & Dara Katcher Levy

We are old enough to remember the “poke” function on Facebook, and too old to remember what purpose it served.  We are similarly at a loss to understand the purpose of Facebook’s new policy requiring that pharmaceutical manufacturers, telehealth companies, and online pharmacies apply for permission to advertise on Facebook.  This new policy goes into effect on August 25, 2021.

The new policy restricts advertising prescription drugs to the three types of entities mentioned above.  Prior to advertising prescription drugs, these entities must apply for permission to do so.  The application form is fairly basic and seems designed to ensure that the advertiser is a legitimate business. Telehealth companies and online pharmacies must submit certification from LegitScript, an organization that provides certification for online health entities, primarily in the addiction treatment space.  Pharmaceutical companies do not need to do this.

Advertisers are limited to promoting prescription drugs in the US, Canada, and New Zealand, and only to people over the age of 18.

So far, so good.  This is pretty basic, although other than ensuring that the entities are real and not scammers or selling illicit drugs, we’re not sure what purpose this serves.  For example, while pharmaceutical companies do submit paid advertisements, much of their Facebook and social media activity is on their own pages, whether corporate, product, or disease state (or, in many cases, all three).  This policy doesn’t seem to restrict those activities.  While those pages require activity by the user to view them, as opposed to ads which are proactively put in the Facebook user’s feed, it still seems to be inconsistent.  And what about influencer marketing?  It is unlikely that this policy impacts sponcon – an increasingly popular means to deliver messaging to a particular demographic.

Nor does the policy apply to prescription medical devices which we’ve also seen advertised endlessly on Facebook.  (Hey, as we opened with, we’re “of a certain age”.  And Facebook is good at targeting our demographic.  They don’t advertise video games and acne products to us.)

Facebook has stated that it can take up to four to six business days to validate information provided and to approve the application.  Since the policy goes into effect on August 25th, advertisers should postpone those summer vacations and “poke” Facebook.  (Seriously, can someone explain the poke function?)