Advertising clinical trials: Do's and Don'ts

A major challenge in clinical trial advertising is being creative within the scope of institutional review board (IRB) and FDA guidelines, as well as distribution channel rules. While it can take more time and research to craft copy within such narrow parameters, it is definitely still possible to engage patients without breaking the rules.

We share some of the top do's and don'ts for advertising clinical trials to ensure your copy, images, and ad placements resonate with the right patients.

Do address the goals of the clinical trial, but don’t make any promises

When making the decision to participate in a clinical trial, it’s critical for patients to know the goal of the clinical trial in question. It helps them understand the benefits and risks of joining. In your ads, by mentioning specific symptoms that the investigative or experimental medication aims to treat, a patient might feel closely aligned with the trial. This can also be a good area to mention inclusion or exclusion criteria related specifically to symptoms.

Even when mentioning symptoms or study goals, however, never make the claim that the treatment under investigation is safe or effective for patients. This is an important guideline from the FDA. Because the study drug hasn't yet been approved, your ads can't state or imply that it will be effective for patients. This includes referring to the investigational medication as a "new treatment" or "new option." However, referring to a clinical trial as “testing the safety and efficacy of an investigational treatment” is transparent and generally considered fair game. 

Do choose images that align with your potential patient or caregiver population, but don’t use misleading art

Before choosing ad designs for your trial, research your patient population. Then, choose images that reflect the patient population, with special attention to the diversity of the patient community. It can be helpful to create "personas" that reflect different portions of your patient community or different motivations to take part in a trial. It can also be useful to choose images that aim to portray a particular symptom of the condition so patients can recognize it with just a quick glance at your ad. 

For example, we have found that for asthma trials, it’s often most effective to include an inhaler in the advertisement, presumably because inhalers are a fairly universal element of living with asthma. Your audience needs to see themselves reflected in your ad. Another example: Lupus is two to three times more common among women of color, so it makes sense to include plenty of options that reflect those demographics in your IRB submission packet. However, you’ll want to be very careful about your ad copy and imagery on Facebook — it shouldn't refer directly to personal attributes (we’ll discuss this more below). 

Do not use any misleading imagery. Making sure that the language you use doesn't imply that the treatment works is step one, but being careful with the imagery you choose is equally important. For example, if you're running a trial for exercise-induced asthma, it may be misleading to use images of people running without issue. If the trial is for an oral, rather than an intravenous drug, then showing a patient in a hospital hooked up to an IV would skew untrue. Every IRB is different, but some may even hesitate to approve images of people showing much emotion in general. The key takeaway is that you never want to mislead or imply a guaranteed treatment benefit. 

Do mention compensation if it’s available, but don’t over-emphasize payment for participation

Clinical trials usually require volunteers to travel to sites and spend time at multiple visits. Offering compensation can be a strong incentive, even if the trial is just covering travel costs. While you can't overemphasize payments, you can mention compensation somewhere in your ad or on the website or prescreener for your trial. Example language can include, “Compensation is available for your time and efforts” or “Study participants will be compensated for helping contribute to Crohn’s disease research.”

Do include a list or summary of eligible criteria, but don’t address “personal attributes” for Facebook ad copy

Depending on character limits, it can be extremely helpful to include as many specific eligibility criteria as possible. Including eligibility criteria in your ad can also help reduce clicks from patients who don't qualify for your trial, particularly if the criteria are very specific. When putting together your IRB copy and imagery materials, include a variety of outreach options that speak to various inclusion and exclusion criteria so you can see which ads perform best.

Facebook (and its platforms Instagram and Messenger) is one of the biggest players in the advertising game, so this tip is specific to Facebook ad guidelines. “Facebook advertisers are allowed to specify medical conditions in their ads, but the language must not imply that the audience has that particular condition,” says David Tindell, Digital Marketing Manager at Antidote. Simply put, Facebook will reject your ad if they feel it speaks too specifically to a person's personal attributes, such as gender, race, or a medical condition. These guidelines include calling out patients specifically by their condition. For example, "Asthma clinical trials in New York" would be approved, but "Do you have asthma? Find a clinical trial" would not be approved. 

Looking for more advertising do’s and don’ts? Antidote can help.