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(Surreptitious) advertisement for a medication

The Dutch Advertising Code Committee (Reclame Code Commissie, RCC), received a complaint about communications in a brochure and on the website of the Stichting Bewegen Zonder Pijn (SBZP). The communications referred to a specific combination of ingredients. They seemed to be purely informative. But according to pharmaceutical industry association Neprofarm, they actually involved surreptitious advertising, partly originating from Synofit, a manufacturer of dietary supplements, for its product Synofit Premium. In a short film featuring a pharmacist, the reader is urged to use Google to search for a product that contains a combination of the ingredients in question. The consumer is then shown an AdWord advertisement for Synofit Premium. The SBZP asserts that this is not an ‘advertisement’ but ‘information’ about which individual ingredients soothe joint pain. Synofit, in turn, claims that it had nothing to do with either the SBZP or the communications.

The RCC found that this was an advertisement. The communications go beyond being neutral and purely informative, and promote the Synofit Premium product that contains the aforementioned specific combination of ingredients. This effect is achieved by an accumulation of direct and indirect references to the ingredients in Synofit Premium. For example, running a Google search using the terms suggested by the SBZP invariably results in an AdWords advertisement for Synofit Premium, and one of the communications even shows a shop display of Synofit products in the background. According to the RCC, the website at bewegenzonderpijn.nl constitutes the prohibited advertising of medications: the ingredients are presented as suitable to cure or prevent an illness or pain in human beings, and neither Synofit nor SBZP has the necessary commercial permits for this.

This is an important decision about the boundary between advertising and information. Information about ingredients can of course be provided, but there is a line that advertisers cannot cross. The exact location of the line between information and advertising depends on the specific circumstances. In this case, providing instructions for a Google search crossed that line. So keep an eye out!

Ebba Hoogenraad & Fleur Jeukens

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