Marketing Gone Wrong

Misleading marketing harms vulnerable consumers. Therefore, stricter laws should be enforced to prevent companies from causing this type of damage.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Natalie Soler

Advertisements can be annoying, especially pop-ups on websites and non-skippable segments before YouTube videos. It seems hard to believe that marketing tactics could be dangerous, though, since there are laws in place to protect consumers from misleading ads. Unfortunately, it is hard to find “ethical marketing” in an age when circulation of unproven claims on the Internet is common. Knowledge of psychology has evolved so far that a company can deduce exactly what a consumer wants from a product, leading to misleading marketing that puts profit over people. Even with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), many corporations find loopholes to avoid legal consequences. Though laws have evolved to crack down on deception, misleading marketing is harmful to the most vulnerable consumers, such as children and physically or mentally ill people.

Manipulative prescription drug marketing can be the most detrimental if information is not made clear to consumers. The long list of side effects read in medical commercials is often only the tip of the iceberg, as companies may take advantage by omitting information about their products. One extreme example of how marketing is so dangerously influential is in the case of the drug OxyContin, which was aggressively marketed when first introduced. It had become a leading abused drug in the United States by 2004. The manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, took advantage of the trend of using opioids as painkillers at that time. Purdue distributed promotional items including OxyContin fishing hats, stuffed plush toys, and CDs, and this commercial marketing promoted a more liberal use of opioids among primary care physicians. Mortality rates from drug overdose climbed dramatically, and by 2002, unintentional overdose deaths from prescription opioids had surpassed those from heroin and cocaine nationwide. The promotion of OxyContin propelled the opioid epidemic in the U.S. to today’s extreme.

Following the company’s filing for bankruptcy, there was a hearing earlier this March, during which individuals spoke to the former president of Purdue Pharma, Dr. Richard Sackler. A Justice Department report revealed that company officials had evidence of the pills being stolen from pharmacies and of some doctors being charged with selling prescriptions. Despite this knowledge, Purdue Pharma continued to market OxyContin as less prone to abuse than other prescription opioids, something the average consumer cannot fact-check because they simply do not have the resources. The public was unaware of the fact that in just a couple of years, Purdue Pharma and Dr. Sackler would be in thousands of lawsuits, listening to the grief of family members who have lost someone to OxyContin overdose.

A more recent example of predatory marketing is Juul targeting minors as its primary consumers. Juul sells e-cigarettes containing the addictive substance nicotine, which has created a new generation of tobacco users, mostly young adults. However, Juul is alleged to be promoting nicotine to minors through advertisements and online marketing. Reportedly, more than two million U.S. teens use e-cigarettes, with a quarter of them saying they vape daily. This number can be connected to Juul’s advertising tactics, particularly using young-looking models and making posts on social media that associate the product with social status. These posts reach teens all over the world, leading the company to go viral. Instagram posts using #Juul doubled in the eight months after the company stopped social media promotions. Exploiting social media created a quick introduction to Juul and other e-cigarettes for minors. Additionally, the company purchased ads in Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Seventeen magazine, all youth-based websites. Four lawsuits were filed against the company in 2018, alleging that it deceptively marketed its product as safe and targeted minors and nonsmokers. The plaintiffs stated that Juul sparked and spread the disease of nicotine addiction to teenagers across the country simply for profit.

In both instances with OxyContin and Juul, the promotion of the product led to increased accessibility to abuse. Organizations such as the FDA and FTC need to regulate advertisements by clearly investigating certain claims and how they are presented. The reactive approach, with the company facing consequences after the damage has been done, is almost useless. The FDA failed to protect consumers from OxyContin in the 1990s and early 2000s by not distinguishing between controlled and noncontrolled drugs in the act regarding the oversight of promotional activities. Almost 20 years later, the FDA has sent warnings to e-cigarette manufacturers about their flavors being targeted toward minors, but these sporadic actions have not resulted in the removal of products that clearly target youth. Juul has tried to create ads educating parents about the dangers of vaping, but they have had little impact on the underage tobacco industry. Minors, whose brains have not fully developed, should not be expected to process information on addictive substances responsibly. Therefore, the companies that expose teens to their targeted ads, whether it be by using young models, lying by omission, or romanticizing their products through social media, are at fault.

Currently, the FDA regulates advertising for only prescription drugs. They should turn their focus to products containing addictive substances. The feasibility of this shift is increasing because of a spending bill passed by Congress on March 10 that allowed the FDA to regulate synthetic nicotine. Though this change is not as narrow as cracking down on advertising, it shows progress in stopping the harmful effects of companies like Juul. Furthermore, regulating advertisements can be successful because marketing directly correlates with the accessibility of the product, making it harder for minors to become addicted for this particular case. Overall, these federal regulators have the responsibility of strictly monitoring the marketing of addictive products.

The vulnerability of the consumers in marketing is something that can earn a company a lifetime of income. The safety of the public depends on the laws set to protect against predatory marketing. Though drug abuse and underage nicotine addiction will never be completely eradicated, they can become less common through safer targeted promotions and full communication of products.