Today, the Food and Drug Administration announced its plan to study the effects of influencers shilling pharmaceuticals on Instagram, finally tackling the question of whether the radiant model-types that populate the network are controlling users’ subconscious minds. The as-yet-to-be performed study, posted on the federal register for comment and first reported by Stat News, seeks to determine how influencers alter consumer perception of medicines, as well as whether patients are likely to speak with a doctor when they see an #ad posted by a beloved wellness personality online.
As Stat notes, the study’s parameters rely on recruiting the followers of an as-yet-unnamed influencer:
To gauge reactions, the FDA plans to recruit nearly 700 followers of an influencer who has an Instagram page with more than 500,000 followers and has posted about endometriosis. No names were mentioned, but as Regulatory Focus noted, Alexa Chung, the U.K. model, writer and fashion designer, and Padma Lakshmi, who hosts the Top Chef show on Bravo, meet the requirements.
Similar studies will also be performed by the agency for direct advertisements and celebrity endorsements, but the Instagram study follows a few years of controversy over the platform’s role in medical marketing. Though Instagram’s terms of service discourage pharmaceutical companies from hawking their products by name, workarounds include posting vague descriptions of conditions (rather than products) and enlisting advertisers-slash-patients to post glowing reviews to their tens of thousands of followers. Given Instagram’s visual nature, and its vast community of people hawking everything from Botox to CBC oils, this arguably contributes to an advertising landscape that privileges fuzzy feelings about health and wellness over the stark realities of potential side effects.
Influencers have been criticized in the past for the deceptive marketing of medical devices and services, an issue compounded by the fact that the FDA certainly doesn’t have much control over what Kim Kardashian decides to post online.