A trend for medical companies and healthcare brands to turn to celebrities and influencers to promote health-related products has been widely criticised.  Popular YouTubers, Instagramers and bloggers promote a wide range of products on their social media accounts: from trendy detox diets to ‘skinny’ tea and opinions about vaccinations … And not everyone is happy about it.

The Rules Surrounding Influencers and Advertising

All paid promotions on social media (whether in cash, goods or services) should be clearly labelled as an advertisement so that the public is aware of the relationship between brand and Influencer. However, not all influencers are open about who pays them for their posts.

In the UK, there are guidelines for influencers about how to use hashtags when influencers share a paid promotion on social media.  The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s advertising regulator, has created a guide for the rules that govern sponsored content.  

blue text "An Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads" with illustrations of computer and shopping

Click the link below to download the guide

An Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads

A History of Quackery

This isn’t a new problem.  During the 1700s, the sale of unregulated and unproven medicines and healthcare products was rife in both London and Paris.  The practice was so prevalent that it even coined its own name. 

A ‘Quack’ is someone who sells medicine for a treatment while not knowing whether it works or not.  The word comes from the old Dutch word ‘quacksalver’ which means ‘one who quacks (boasts) about the virtue of his salves’.  

In part, this was due to the poor understanding of medical matters by the general public but also due to the lack of regulations.  Many of the ‘cure-alls’ on sale didn’t do anything to improve the patient’s condition, whilst others were positively lethal.  Various potions, lotions, tinctures, enemas and surgical procedures were prescribed by unqualified healers.  It wasn’t until 1858 that an act of Parliament set up the General Council of Medical Education and Registration for qualified doctors in Great Britain.  

Despite a variety of safeguards today, has the accessibility of unregulated medical information on the internet plunged us back into the dark ages of quackery again?

Social media allows Influencers to get paid for promoting a wide range of products, with alleged medicinal benefits, to an unsuspecting public with little or no proof that they work or will, at least, do no harm.

Influencers are not qualified to provide medical advice and are not able to specify contraindications or side effects.  

Kim Kardashian West posted about a remedy for morning sickness in 2015 and was reprimanded by the Food and Drug Administration in the US for not giving enough safety information about the drug.  They concluded that her social media posts on Instagram violated federal drug-promotion rules.  

Is It Ethical To Pay For Health-Related Advertising?

Medical advertising has existed for a long time. It’s not uncommon for us to watch pain-killer and cold medicine ads on television, read plastic surgery advertorials in magazines, and view billboards for dental services whilst driving.  So, why is Influencer advertising facing such a backlash?

Influencers and celebrities have huge numbers of followers.  Their regular social media posts showcase their aspirational lifestyles convincing people to buy products when there is clearly a secret conflict of interest.  There is a worry that the vast number of spurious health related claims on social media is proof that there’s a cheap, quick and easy way to get in front of an eager, gullible audience that’s being exploited.

Understandably, people have started to get angry with Influencers who use their fame on social networks, such as Instagram, and disguise the fact that they’re earning money whilst peddling fake medical claims for weight loss products etc.

What Is The Best Way To Work With Influencers?

Public health advice requires the right tone, language and a thorough understanding of how to explain the benefits and risks.  Full disclosure, about whether a post is being paid for by a brand, is vital. 

Walgreens collaborated with social media Influencer Ashley Haby when they wanted someone to help promote flu shots.  If you look at Ashley’s post, she’s made it very clear that she has been paid by Walgreens to promote the shots to her 17.9k followers. 

  1. Firstly, she’s used the location setting under her account name to highlight Walgreens.
  2. Ashley has tagged the healthcare brand into the post copy. 
  3. She has also been honest and started her post off with the hashtag #Ad


View this post on Instagram


#Ad Who wore it better? The @walgreens bandaid that is 😉 As we enter the flu season hubby and I are making sure we keep ourselves protected as flu-fighters so we can love on all of the babies + elderly in our family this holiday season. Head to your local Walgreens for all of your flu shot needs and be in and out in minutes! Now really who wore it better?? 👏🏽 • • #hubbyandwifey #goals #marriage #flu #holidayseason #autumn #fallfashion #marriagegoals #love #coldweather #mamablogger #mamabear #mompreneur #blessed #matchymatchy #dateyourspouse #travel #texas #styles #longhairdontcare #holiday #bekind #beyourself #homedecor #homeinspiration #lifestyle #fluawareness #healthcare

A post shared by Ashley | Personal blogger (@southernsudsandsimpleliving) on

5 Tips For Healthcare Brands Working With Influencers

  1. Ensure that your Influencer is transparent and open about the relationship they have with your brand.
  2. Educate your Influencer about your product, it’s benefits, contraindications and limitations.
  3. Set clear guidelines about what they can and cannot say about your product.  Take advice from advertising standards regulators if you’re unsure.
  4. Monitor and review your Influencer’s posts about your brand and the overall conversations they have with their followers about your brand.
  5. Only use Influencers that have a clear, authentic relationship with their followers and are relevant to your brand.