A recent promo between Khloé Kardashian and drug company Biohaven has rung an alarm with people online, who are saying influencer shills are taking things too far. They say sponcon for medication is irresponsible at best — and that it's sad symbolism for the American healthcare system.
Late on Monday night, Kardashian tweeted the #sponsored deal she had with the medication for treating migraines, adding that she's experienced a "life with #migraine." The social media commercial also came with a trending hashtag for Nurtec ODT, which is made by the drug company Biohaven.
Unfortunately for the company, the hashtag was flooded with a lot of trolling and serious criticism about the ad.
"Is #NurtecODT a bronzer?" one person tweeted facetiously. "Celebrity sponsored drugs is a big no from me," another wrote, using the company's promoted hashtag.
The promoted slot in people's timelines came as a shock, even for the Kardashians, who seem to have no ceiling when it comes to promoting products on their social media channels. Khloé Kardashian, specifically, has been in controversy before over her weight-loss ads for products like Flat Tummy Tea.
Still, people felt that marketing for Big Pharma was a "step way too far."
Kardashian is of course not the only celebrity endorser for pharmaceutical corporations. Serena Williams, who says she gets migraines, has also become a recent spokesperson for a competitive migraine medicine brand.
However, the direct-to-consumer marketing that influencers do is what makes this uniquely concerning for some. The influencer–fan model directly operates on what the influencer endorses and what their fans buy into. A product, like a drug that can be an out-of-pocket expense for many Americans, immediately raises the stakes on potential endangerment and personal responsibility.
Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who's written about social media law and ethics, told BuzzFeed News this kind of digital practice can be "pernicious."
"With pharmaceutical aspects, we’re talking about public health and we’re talking about individuals' health. I think that’s a potentially life-or-death issue," he said. "That certainly raises the level of responsibility that influencers must exercise."
Moreover, influencers are oftentimes pushing products to make money, but their fans may be interpreting those endorsements as quality information that they'll bring to their doctors.
"It is a bit problematic ethically because, after all, we rely upon physicians to consult their patients on what are their best courses of action. This use of social media influence is designed to arm [the] patient with information that they’re going to take in the doctor’s office. I don’t think it’s scientific information; it’s more persuasion," said Lipschultz.
"We’re using the potentially powerful influence of an influencer in this case and her credibility with fans to present a message that’s most likely seen as credible and may not take into the account the details, like the side effects that are rattled off at the end of an ad."
This kind of power imbalances is what's making people feel uneasy.
When contacted, the US Food and Drug Administration reinstated its policies regarding the social media promotion of FDA-regulated medicine. A spokesperson said its "statute and regulations require that such communication be truthful, non-misleading and balanced."
"If FDA believes that there is a violation of its statute or regulations, including one related to promotion of an approved product, the FDA may seek compliance by sending a warning or untitled letter to the company, or pursue remedies in court, such as an injunction," they added.
A rep for Khloé Kardashian declined a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News has also reached out to the American Pharmacists Association.
In the meantime, a drug company in business with the Kardashian empire is "the best explanation of the american healthcare system" that people could possibly point to right now.