This paper provides an overview of the regulations concerning the use of product placements as a tool to sell pharmaceutical products. Product placements fall into a gray area, because the Federal Trade Commission does not define them as advertisements. Therefore, there are few strict regulations governing their use. The pharmaceutical industry has not used product placement as a marketing tool as heavily as many other industries, such as the auto industry, have.
The authors examined medical-themed television shows during a four-week period in the fall of 2005. They determined that the pharmaceuticals mentioned were mostly generics, and that the role brand-name drugs played in scripts did not appear different than the role generic drugs played. In only one instance was a brand name (Lupron) repeatedly mentioned on different episodes of a show, and the drug was mentioned for an off-label use. The authors hypothesize that because TAP pharmaceuticals was, at that time, seeking FDA approval for this off-label use of Lupron, that perhaps these concurrent events were not coincidental. Spokespeople for the company and for Fox Broadcasting, however, declined to discuss the issue.
The latter statement points out the difficulty of determining the intentionality of use of products in the entertainment business. The authors suggest several policy approaches to deal with the issue, including the redefinition of product placements as advertisements, complete with FDA regulation. This policy is unlikely to be adopted, and a more moderate version of it would define product placements as a distinct form of promotion separate from advertising and requiring new guidelines. Without doubt, the current lack of guidelines and monitoring leave open the possibility for abuse of pharmaceutical product placements.