Google Shakes Up Pharma Advertising—Say Goodbye to Black Box Ads, Vanity URLs and Flash

Since its inception, the evolving digital marketing landscape has kept pharmaceutical marketers on their toes. Gone are the days when brand managers could carefully control the production of a glossy brochure, “set it and forget it,” and move on to the next thing. Today, marketing is about carefully integrated moving parts, a deep understanding of the customer journey, and the reliance on a multitude of properties, platforms and media. And those digital platforms are not always predictable or controllable, which can cause special challenges in the regulated space.

This was evident recently when Google announced changes certain to shake up the way pharma marketers approach online advertising. The changes included ending an important exception Google had made for pharma search engine advertising, as well as a change to Google’s Chrome browser that affects banner ads. In both cases, these changes are out of a marketer’s control. Yet they stand to directly affect campaigns in-market, and should be heeded by anyone running or planning search and banner ad campaigns.

Google Shakes Up Paid Search For Pharma

In June, Google announced policy changes that would impact pharma paid search advertising. Google plans to end two of its popular pharmaceutical custom ad formats: Black-box and vanity URLs. Google had created these custom ad formats so that the industry could advertise in Google’s search engine while staying compliant with FDA regulations. Google is ending these ad offerings, it explained, as a result of a planned URL infrastructure change that will no longer support these built-for-pharma formats.

Bye Bye, Black Box Ads

Google will discontinue all black-box ad formats as of July 20, 2015. These ad formats, available since 2009, offered an extra line of text (e.g., “Click to see full safety and prescribing information, including boxed warning”), along with a direct link (“More info”) to the drug’s safety information. See the example of this ad format below:


This black-box warning ad format will be discontinued as of July 20.


Pharma advertisers will still be able to place ads for black-box medications, but will now be forced to use Google’s standard ad format, which does not have the extra line of text or link to risk information. The ads will include the standard brand name, generic name and a boxed warning safety statement. While the advertiser has the option to have that ad lead directly to the ISI, it will no longer be offered as an extra link within the copy. An example of this reminder-link format is below.


When using Google’s standard ad format, marketers will need to choose whether to link to ISI or another page relevant to the search.


If the brand and generic name is long and the language directing users to the boxed warning and prescribing information cannot fit in standard ad copy, then advertisers may choose to use Google’s ad extensions (see below example).


Ad extensions provide more flexibility for black-box products to remain in compliance, but have some limitations.


Ad extensions provide more flexibility for black-box products to remain in compliance, but represent limitations such as limited mobile viewability. They also don’t display on the right-hand side of search results nor within Google Display Network placements.

It remains to be seen if FDA will find black-box drugs using these formats in compliance, since ISI may now be two clicks or a scroll away. Google reports it has alerted FDA to its discontinuation of the black-box ad format. It also remains to be seen whether other search engines will follow Google’s suit and eliminate their similar options, or see it as an opportunity to capture pharma ad dollars.

Vanity Redirects Get a Makeover

In addition to the end of black-box ads, on January 12, 2016, the current pharma vanity URL ad format is changing. Vanity URL ads offered pharma advertisers the option to display a disease awareness search ad with an unbranded URL—for example “” (see below)—yet when clicked, users are redirected to a promotional product website.


Currently, this unbranded Google ad displays when a user searches for “rheumatoid arthritis,” and when clicked, redirects to As of January 2016, the option to use unique vanity URLs will end.


Some have argued this format of advertising, while FDA compliant, felt like a “bait-and-switch” to the consumer looking for disease information. Google cited a “confusing user experience” as one of the reasons for discontinuing these formats. In place of the vanity URL format, Google will provide three new ad options, expected to be ready by the January deadline. These include:


Google Figure 5
These three new Google ad options replace the vanity URL format.


When a user clicks on the ad, they will be directed to the destination URL provided for the ad text, but cannot be redirected to a different URL. Because Google is offering these new display URL options, advertisers can still run disease awareness ads that link to branded pages without risk of violating FDA fair balance regulations. The last option seems the best for most brands, since health information seekers will quickly get lost if directed to most corporate sites.

In the end, these new formats reach Google’s goals of a better user experience and increased transparency. But marketers, agencies and regulatory professionals may find they limit the flexibility the previous ad formats had offered.

Pending Chrome Release Sounds Death Knell for Flash

In addition to the Google search engine marketing changes, Google is putting an additional twist in pharma marketing plans through an upcoming update to the way its Chrome browser treats Flash banner ads. Chrome is the most widely used web browser in the world.

Pharmaceutical companies often use banner advertising on third-party websites, such as WebMD, to reach various audiences. Historically, many of these ads were built using Adobe Flash technology, which provided the capability for animation, video-streaming and—importantly—scrolling safety information.

Flash, however, has been dying a slow death due to security issues and incompatibility with mobile devices. Famously, Apple refused to support Flash on iPhones or iPads, and Android doesn’t support it either. So it should come as no surprise that Google will be updating its Chrome browser to treat Flash banners as more of a nuisance than a flashy key component of a web page.

Currently, Chrome plays all Flash banner ads from beginning to end as long as the user stays on the same view of the page. But in September, Google will release a new version of Chrome that will play only the first few seconds of a Flash banner ad, and then pause it if the user is not actively engaged. The user then has the option to “play” the ad after it has paused. Advertisers will not be able to control where the ad pauses.

Below is an example of the resting point for a branded pharmaceutical banner as it displays in a beta version of the upcoming Chrome release:


This will greatly impact display campaigns in-market, so marketers should prepare now. Google has reported they are making the change to reduce power consumption. The solution—though it could be a laborious one—is to rebuild Flash-based banners using HTML5.

Stay On Top Of The Evolution

It’s difficult when a regulated industry so closely watched by FDA (remember the 14 search warning letters of 2009?) is forced to work within parameters set by platforms outside their control. Marketers must stay abreast of the ever-evolving landscape and lean on their partners to stay informed. Like it or not, when it comes to modern marketing, the only thing that is constant is change.

  • Wendy Blackburn

    Wendy Blackburn is Executive Vice President at Intouch Solutions. With 20 years’ experience in healthcare marketing, Wendy has helped grow Intouch Solutions into a 650-person premier healthcare agency, recognized four times as Agency of the Year.


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