Ozempic is the miracle weight-loss medication taking the world by storm and its marketing is a reminder of the perils of direct-to-consumer drug advertising.
Created as a diabetes medication to regulate blood sugar, demand for the drug semaglutide (brand name Ozempic) has exploded in popularity in recent times after its significant weight-loss side effects were popularised by celebrities and influencers celebrating the drug on social media.
The drug’s manufacturer Novo Nordisk has quickly become one of Europe’s most valuable firms, with a market value of around US$428 billion. And Ozempic has been in short supply globally for the past 12 months, with the Therapeutic Drugs Administration (TGA) in Australia recently warning prescribers not to initiate new patients on the drug due to limited supply and the proliferation of scams purporting to sell the drug online.
While it is illegal to advertise drugs in Australia and the TGA has issued warnings to social media influencers and advertisers against publicly promoting Ozempic for weight loss, the interconnected world of social media makes it impossible to avoid discussions of the drug.
Ozempic marketing: popular online and out-of-home
Canadian TikTokers have chronicled Ozempic branded trams. In the subway system in New York, prominent billboards from health startup Ro which provides subscriptions to the drug read, “a weekly shot to lose weight”, and feature an image of someone injecting the shot into their stomach.
Ro says its subway marketing campaign, “aims to start an important, sometimes difficult, conversation focused on de-stigmatising obesity as a condition and highlighting a new, incredibly effective treatment that may, for the first time, be a real solution for millions of people.”
And an American TV campaign set to rock band Pilot’s 1970’s hit ‘Magic’, features the unforgettable jingle “oh, oh, oh, Ozempic”. The upbeat, cheerful neighbourhood scene of a Dad who has successfully managed his diabetes with the drug is followed by nearly a minute of dystopian voice-over warnings about its serious side effects, in a stark reminder of the dangers of a medicine which effectively curbs your desire to eat.
On TikTok, the hashtag #Ozempic has surpassed one billion views.
Proponents of direct-to-consumer advertising report that drug ads can serve important roles for consumers, such as empowering and engaging patients to participate in their own healthcare. But a 2018 study of direct to consumer advertising in the US found that the average television viewer watches as many as nine drug advertisements per day and that these ads are “most certainly” leading to increased costs for the system and for patients.
The TGA says consumers of health products are a more vulnerable consumer group and require support to make informed healthcare choices.
Tough Australian drug advertising rules designed to protect consumers
Despite Australia’s strict regulations and the TGA’s warning that advertising Ozempic to the public can result in jail time and penalties in excess of $1 million for individuals and $11 million for corporations, the regulator is now reviewing sponsored content by Novo Nordisk on social media to ensure it complies with Australian rules.
The company’s sponsored posts on Instagram state that body type is heavily influenced by genetics and includes a link to its website with information about its prescription-only weight loss medications.
The regulator said the post would be reviewed, stating that as long as a post doesn’t promote a prescription medicine, or other therapeutic good, it is not subject to the advertising laws for therapeutic goods. It noted that hyperlinks are considered when assessing whether advertising of a therapeutic good has occurred.
Ozempic not a silver bullet for obesity
Obesity rates have rapidly increased in the past three decades, with rapid environmental changes in nutrition and physical activity as well as a genetic predisposition in some individuals cited as the cause.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare two in three adults over 18 are overweight or obese in Australia, approximately 12.5 million adults. It’s a public health crisis that demands radical solutions, but is taking vital medication from the hands of diabetics the answer?
And despite the enormous promise of Ozempic, reports suggest that many people who use the drug regain the weight they have lost after they stop using it.
International shortages of Ozempic are being driven by people seeking the drug for weight loss, and the prolific direct to consumer marketing campaigns have no doubt driven global interest. Australia’s drug marketing rules are in place to ensure medical practitioners decisions are supported and that consumers are not fed confusing information about their pharmaceutical options.
Responsible marketing can help manage consumer expectations around this miracle weight loss solution.
@thisischanny Did Ozempic win the mayoral election bc why tf are these ads everywhere i turn in this city, are we well??? #ozempicadsintoronto #torontolife ♬ original sound – Spill the tea w me
Read more about promotions of therapeutic goods here.
Cover photo by Fuu J on Unsplash.