Pharmaceutical Marketing Ethics

The pharmaceutical industry is highly competitive. In competitive environments, marketing becomes a critical component of the organisation.

To illustrate this competitiveness, it is estimated that more money is spent on marketing than on research and development (which itself presents an ethics question) in the wider pharmaceutical industry. This has created a problem. For more on this, see pharmaceutical marketing challenges.

Within this industry, marketing, sales and promotional practices have often come under scrutiny and questioned from an ethical perspective. Especially for the consumer-facing and drug manufacturing organisations who can put customers and patients at risk in the process.


Traditionally, field sales representatives have led the promotional aspects of marketing new pharmaceutical products, who ensure that the healthcare community is informed of the benefits of the product. But it is very much in the sales representative’s interests to focus on the benefits of its product, and avoid divulging the negatives.

In a heavily regulated industry where organisations might choose profits over patients sanctions follow. Governments across the globe have introduced more of such regulations in the last ten years, putting pharmaceutical organisations who do not operate ethically at risk of punishment.

This means that the traditional approach should be scarcely used, and commercial teams should be mindful of ethics when it comes to the marketing of products and services.


For organisations working in pharma that adhere to regulations, there will still be risks, therefore, it is best practice to follow a set of general principles to ensure that marketing is always ethical, ensuring that that trust is not lost with audiences.

Here are 10 ethics, ethical considerations or ideas for better ways for promoting and marketing pharmaceutical products which are relevant to the B2C pharmaceutical industry, just as they are for the B2B industry.


This blog post will not go into any detail about the range of laws present within the pharmaceutical industries. However, your organisation will know them well, and therefore, your employees will need to know them inside out. Regulations and guidelines (such as the EFPIA or the PhRMA) will ensure that the organisation’s key employees are already trained on the appropriate laws, regulations and codes of practices. Make it standard practice to educate all of your marketing employees on these regulations and have regular refresher sessions.


GDPR laws has meant that organisations need consent before directly marketing to individuals. This law is in an early stage of maturity and will take some time before the specific details of the law, including its penalties, become clear. But organisations can still ensure that it is respecting the privacy and preferences of the recipient of the marketing communications and operating in an ethical and culturally sensitive manner. Where possible, get the consent of the audience you are looking to reach, or at a minimum, approach your audiences in a non-intrusive way.


In the pharmaceutical industries, when the disclosure of key information is in question, more is merrier. Organisations need to go above and beyond to ensure full transparency with their products and services. This includes, for example, disclosing the full range of potential side effects and the results of the clinical trials (or what exactly a subscriber will receive if they sign up to the website). The amount of data that can be available following the development phases can be overwhelming, but organisations must make it clear what the data entails via its website and other documentation. Also, do not disguise your marketing messages for something else - this would be unethical in any sector.


Driving sales of products or services (or even prescriptions) via the traditional field sales representatives deemed “educators” – armed with freebies, a budget for gifts and a smart suit – just isn’t how it works now. The entire pharmaceutical industry needs to leave behind this rather dishonest image and do more things differently like it has started to in recent years. Rather than a sales model, organisations can adopt a more partner-centric approach with physicians, manufacturers and service providers. This peer-to-peer approach means that a more natural conversation and relationship can be developed with two individuals seemingly on the same scientific level and wavelength.


Inbound marketing is the complete opposite of having salespeople visit prospects to make sales. It involves the creation of informational content to educate and inform audiences with the view of adding value. This way, the medical or pharma community you serve can find key product and service information on their own accord, where you as the marketing organisation, achieve brand awareness and an opportunity to develop sales leads at a future date. Inbound marketing, within digital marketing circles, is considered highly ethical as it does not seek to push anything by the way of the target audience. See our suggested content types blog post for information on your content options.


Large pharmaceutical organisations will likely have large marketing and sales databases – more often than not, these databases are out of date and in need of updating. The role of the data manager is one dreaded by any marketing or sales professional due to the laborious nature of the data management tasks. But bad data will produce bad marketing and bad marketing results. Ensure your CRM – the lifeblood of all marketing and ethical activities – is kept up to date.


Online communities and networks present the perfect setting for building relationships and brand awareness, with prospects, peers and patients. Don't neglect your social media platforms, forums and other online communities also provide the opportunity for organisations to communicate their ethical practices and relevant content. See our conversational marketing types blog post for more on how you can start conversations on a range of platforms within the healthcare industry.


Customer loyalty is gained when an organisation aligns itself with its customers, often positioning itself alongside those customers as a “customer” and a citizen equal to that customer within society. Develop a set of brand values (as well as brand guidelines) that reinforces your approach to creating products and services that help people in their professional or personal lives. Of course, do not lose focus on your products and services, rather make it clear that your organisation respects its customers and sees them as a member of the organisation’s family.

9. “Is it illegal to do that?”

Laws and regulations will always exist within the pharma industries and it will always be key to obey these rules. But this doesn’t mean that organisations should attempt to push the boundaries on these regulations, adopting a “tick-box” approach whereby the key determinant is to find out whether something is illegal, and therefore, find out how to “get around” the regulation. Pharmaceutical marketing ethics shouldn’t come down to legal obligations, and organisations should go beyond and fully understand their audiences, forming relevant marketing messages as a consequence.


Pharmaceutical marketing ethics are best demonstrated through acts of fairness, integrity, and responsibility. If an organisation acts responsibly to the markets, societies and communities it markets itself within, it will always demonstrate itself in a positive light. Honesty goes a long way in a world where consumers are well aware of manipulative sales and marketing ploys that organisations have been deploying for decades. A pharmaceutical organisation that acts responsibly with its marketing activities will build more trust with those it seeks out for its products and services.


All of the above marketing principles and ethics all set out to achieve the same thing: To develop a culture of trust in an industry where pressure is exerted on organisations to sell.

Many pharmaceutical organisations have been conducting the same marketing campaigns for the last decade or so. Of course, there is nothing wrong with doing so, but this has meant the industry has been left behind in previous years, with organisations continuing to operate under outdated assumptions and beliefs, which has not changed as the consumer has, affecting marketing output in the process.

Should pharmaceutical organisations and marketers rethink culture, tactics, messages and ethics, it can benefit the industry as a whole, and still thrive in what is a hugely complex, challenging, but also rewarding industry.