Crossing the line? Influencers on the spot over medical marketing
Many business people attest to the fact that some of their best deals come from referrals as buyers rely on the trust factor, believing that if someone they know has used a product or service, then it must be good.
This is the platform on which influencers - the new marketing tool used by companies - ride on when pushing products and services.
Influencers leverage on their following to attract clients who want their products and services to reach different markets. It is assumed that people who follow these influencers trust them and what they say, therefore, if they advise their followers to buy a certain product, it must be good.
Among companies who target influencers to market their products include beauty firms, baby product manufacturers, phone manufacturers, apparel firms, among others.
Kenyan influencers who have revealed the amount of money they make from their work say they can make between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of shillings for each social media post they make marketing products and services.
Some say they make millions in lumpsum payments for gigs they get to promote company products on their social media platforms.
The rate cards of top-tier social media influencers would make some top-earning individuals in white collar jobs green with envy.
The problem with influencer marketing is that many influencers’ goal is purely monetary, meaning their search for money, and sometimes the highest bidder, is the primary goal and not the legitimacy or quality of a product.
Herein comes the ethics question.
What is the line that should not be crossed when doing social media influencing?
The rising use of influencers to market medical products and services has become and issue of contention.
According to Simon Kiraithe, the Deputy Director of Communications at the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council, the use of social media influencers to advertise medical services is not in line with the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists (practitioners and Health Facilities) (Advertising) Rules 2016.
Rule 7 addresses the issue of using influencers and stipulates that no medical or dental practitioner or health institution shall seek to advertise, solicit or attract business or patients through any of the following means: an “intermediary” that would amount to professional touting; unsolicited contact; false or misleading statements, or where undue influence is used; and arranged referrals where commission or otherwise is arranged or paid.
"As regulator of medical and dental practitioners, community oral health officers and health institutions, the Advertising Rules 2016 are what govern advertising," Kiraithe says.
He continues, "The Council’s mandate is limited to medical and dental practitioners, community oral health officers and health institutions. In the event a medical or dental practitioner or a health institution is in breach of any of these Rules, the Council shall upon receipt of a complaint refer the complaint to the Disciplinary and Ethics Committee for an appropriate inquiry or action."
Influencers have been used to market medical services which range from cosmetic procedures to lifesaving ones.
In the cosmetic section, influencers have shared with their followers stories about undergoing procedures such as teeth whitening and liposuction. While some say that they are not role models and their lifestyle choices should not be imitated by others and later used to blame them when things don’t work out, the fact remains that as their title goes, the group influences perceptions and consequently buying decisions.
The medical practitioners rules also state that a practitioner or health institution registered under the Act shall not directly or indirectly permit any promotion which may be reasonably regarded as calculated to attract patients, clients or business except if it is objective, true and dignified.
The advertisement should also be respectful of the professional ethics of the profession, not attempt to denigrate other practitioners or health institutions or the profession; and not infringe on patient confidentiality.
The rules prohibit the use of information in advertising that creates or is likely to create unrealistic or unwarranted expectations about the effectiveness of the health services offered promising to achieve a particular outcome for the patient or prospective patients or clients.
Also disallowed is a promise to complete treatment of patients in any particular time or faster than other practitioners or Health Institutions and a promise that failure to obtain the outcome promised shall constitute a waiver of the fees for the practitioner or Health Institutions.
Practitioners are also not allowed to use deceitful, erroneous or misleading information.
In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in February released a social media advertising guide with an aim to stop social media influencers promoting health products.
Following the move, experts weighed in.
Professor Vicki Waye, the Dean of Law in University of South Australia, said, "Influencers have become an important marketing tool because they are perceived by many to be genuine and credible sources of information about product quality. However, the incentives that influencers receive from the companies that supply the products or services they promote are rarely disclosed and influencers may have little basis or few credentials for some of the claims made.”
“Consumers of the products can therefore be misled.”
Melanie McGrice, an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian, said, "As a fertility and prenatal dietitian, I often see clients who are on a long list of supplements and powders which they have decided to take on the advice of social media influencers. Oftentimes the supplements are doing more harm than good to these clients.”
Dr Marc Cheong, a Senior Lecturer in Information Systems (Digital Ethics), at the University of Melbourne, said, "The move by the Theraputic Goods Administration (TGA) to crack down on social media influencers promoting health products is an interesting case in the field of digital ethics.
The bottom line is that Kenyans need to do their due diligence when taking up products and services recommended by influencers and not simply go by what they say.
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