Biggest drug companies halted Twitter ad buys after Lilly insulin spoof
Almost all of the drug industry’s biggest advertisers cut their spending on Twitter to zero or near-zero over the last two weeks amid worries about impersonation of their brands by pranksters and the future of the social media company.
Among 18 of the biggest pharmaceutical advertisers in the US market, 12 cut their Twitter ad spending to nothing for the week beginning Nov. 14, according to Pathmatics, which tracks data on prescription drug ad spending as well as general corporate advertising. The list of drugmakers cutting spending to zero includes Merck, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer and others.
Six companies showed some spending on Twitter ads last week, according to the data. But for most, the amounts are a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. The sole outlier is German drugmaker Bayer, which spent $480,000 last week, a huge jump from the weeks prior. Pathmatics’ data for Bayer also captures over-the-counter drug ad spending, which could skew the results.
Bayer said in a statement to Endpoints News: “We continue to monitor developments at Twitter and regularly assess our position. We do not release our advertising spend.”
While drug companies have never been massive ad spenders on Twitter, the sudden change highlights just how quickly some major brands have pulled back from the social media company in the wake of its takeover by new owner Elon Musk.
Musk closed his purchase of Twitter in the final days of October, and corporate brands soon after faced a wave of pranks and impersonation after Musk launched a program to sell verified badges — previously a marker than an account was “official” — to anyone for $8 per month. Eli Lilly faced one of the highest-profile such spoofs, from a fake account that sprung up and claimed that the company’s insulin was now free.
Eli Lilly’s official account @LillyPad is still online, but with no new tweets since Nov. 10, when the imposter account spoofed the company. Lilly executives scrambled to get the tweet pulled, but it took hours for Twitter to respond, and Lilly’s stock tumbled by more than 4% by the next day, despite gains in the broader market. The $8 verified program was suspended soon after.
Lilly and other top pharma advertisers all either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on their advertising spending.
On Nov. 10, the same day of the fake Eli Lilly tweet, Musk announced a new policy saying that parody accounts would only be allowed if they identified themselves in their name. “Basically, tricking people is not ok,” he said in a tweet. Representatives for Twitter didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The ad pullback doesn’t mean pharma is leaving Twitter entirely. Pharma corporate accounts are still up, with some continuing to post news and updates. For example, Merck posted from its account, which now sports the new gray “Official” logo, four days ago, announcing the European advisory committee’s positive opinion for its metastatic prostate cancer med. Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb have also secured gray “official” checkmarks, which Twitter is using in place of the “verified” checkmark badges for some corporate brands, media outlets or other major public figures.
Lilly’s Twitter account does not yet have the new gray official account check as of Friday morning.
Pharma advertiser concerns are nothing new on Twitter. The traditionally conservative pharma industry has long been wary of the potential for ads placed next to controversial messages and posts.
“It’s fair for pharma brands to be more conservative and have even more questions now around large scale advertising on Twitter when there’s more uncertainty about how their brand is going to be positioned,” The Harris Poll’s managing director Rob Jekielek said.
On the other side of Twitter, the so-called organic brand accounts and people in general are not going away. As Musk himself has been pointing out all week, Twitter use is at all-time high. The Harris Poll would agree, Jekielek noted, as its tracking of pharma and healthcare experts and discussions on Twitter haven’t dropped off at all.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Bayer.