Data-driven Health Marketing Surveillance in the U.S.

Jeff Chester

FTC Commercial Surveillance Filing from CDD focuses on how pharma & other health marketers target consumers, patients, prescribers

“Acute Myeloid Lymphoma,” “ADHD,” “Brain Cancer,” “High Cholesterol,” “Lung Cancer,” “Overweight,” “Pregnancy,” “Rheumatoid Arthritis,” “Stroke,” and “Thyroid Cancer.” These are just a handful of the digitally targetable medical condition “audience segments” available to surveillance advertisers  While health and medical condition marketers—including pharmaceutical companies and drug store chains—may claim that such commercial data-driven marketing is “privacy-compliant,” in truth it reveals how vulnerable U.S. consumers are to having some of their most personal and sensitive data gathered, analyzed, and used for targeted digital advertising. It also represents how the latest tactics leveraging data to track and target the public—including “identity graphs,” artificial intelligence, surveilling-connected or smart TV devices, and a focus on so-called permission-based “first-party data”—are now broadly deployed by advertisers—including pharma and medical marketers. 

Behind the use of these serious medical condition “segments” is a far-reaching commercial surveillance complex including giant platforms, retailers, “Adtech” firms, data brokers, marketing and “experience” clouds, device manufacturers (e.g., streaming), neuromarketing and consumer research testing entities, “identity” curation specialists and advertisers…We submit as representative of today’s commercial surveillance complex the treatment of medical condition and health data. It incorporates many of the features that can answer the questions the commission seeks. There is widespread data gathering on individuals and communities, across their devices and applications; techniques to solicit information are intrusive, non-transparent, and out of meaningful scope for consumer control; these methods come at a cost to a person’s privacy and pocketbook, and potentially has significant consequences to their welfare. There are also societal impacts here, for the country’s public health infrastructure as well as with the expenditures the government must make to cover the costs for prescription drugs and other medical services…

Health and pharma marketers have adopted the latest data-driven surveillance-marketing tactics—including targeting on all of a consumer’s devices (which today also includes streaming video delivered by Smart TVs); the integration of actual consumer purchase data for more robust targeting profiles; leveraging programmatic ad platforms; working with a myriad of data marketing partners; using machine learning to generate insights for granular consumer targeting; conducting robust measurement to help refine subsequent re-targeting; and taking advantage of new ways to identify and reach individuals—such as “Identity Graphs”— across devices. 

[complete filing for the FTC's Commercial Surveillance rulemaking attached]