Life Sciences and Healthcare

Medication advertising in the digital age

Published on 25th Mar 2024

The Generalitat of Catalonia has updated its guide to advertising medicines for human use with a focus on digital advertising

Close up of test tubes being filled

The Health Department of the Generalitat of Catalonia has unveiled the fifth edition of its guide on advertising of medicinal products for human use. Since its first edition published in 2003, the guide has maintained a practical and clear approach that has been widely appreciated by the sector. A pioneer in addressing the blurred line between "advertising" and "non-advertising information", this latest version (published in February 2024) focuses in particular on adapting the guide to the digital environment and social media advertising, reflecting the changing patterns of online communication and advertising.

Although the guide is non-binding, it summarises and interprets in a practical way the most important aspects of the applicable legislation on the advertising of medicinal products. Together with the Madrid Circular, the guide of the Spanish General Secretary of Health and the FarmaIndustria codes of conduct, this new edition provides an essential framework offering legal certainty for the pharmaceutical industry, promoting responsible advertising. Its relevance lies in its ability to guide healthcare professionals in the sensitive field of medication advertising, ensuring that commercial communications in this sector are transparent and comply with current regulations.

Advertising of medicinal products in the digital landscape

With this new edition, the Generalitat develops the provisions relating to digital advertising, unifying in the same section of the guide all the information that had previously been published separately in different bulletins. Although this section was first introduced in the 2016 version, it has now been expanded considerably.

The guide underlines the importance for companies in the sector to understand the characteristics of each digital communication system in order to select the most suitable one for their specific projects, audiences and objectives. Furthermore, it reiterates that any digital communication channel used for the dissemination of medication advertising must comply with the same rules applicable to analogue media.

The guide groups advertising by digital channels according to their characteristics:

  • Embedded advertising: this type of advertising is not targeted at specific individuals, but rather is placed on valid digital media to reach a wider audience. As advertising and information about prescription medicines can only be included in areas restricted to healthcare professionals authorised to receive this type of content, the guide distinguishes between platforms that completely restrict access and those that do not. Platforms such as X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, Spotify and TikTok do not allow access restrictions. On the other hand, websites, mobile apps, LinkedIn and Facebook do offer the possibility of restricting access under certain conditions. For example, LinkedIn and Facebook can be used for the dissemination of information and advertising on prescription-only medicines thanks to the option to create closed groups exclusively for healthcare professionals. As regards websites, it is worth noting that the guide prohibits the inclusion of the name or trademark of a prescription-only medicine in the domain name of a website, as this would constitute a form of advertising.
  • Targeted advertising: this refers to marketing communication that is sent specifically to a healthcare professional. The guide recalls that the healthcare professional to whom this communication is addressed to must have given prior consent to receive it. Examples of the channels through which this type of targeted advertising can be carried out include email, WhatsApp or Telegram. It is important to underline that these tools should be used exclusively for the execution of targeted advertising and cannot ever be considered as a means to carry out embedded advertising.
  • Other digital tools: the guide mentions in this category podcasts, webinars and search engines, as well as their advertising services, detailing the rules of use applicable for each of them.

Other new features

In this latest edition, other significant modifications have been made besides the development of the section on advertising in digital media. A new section on definitions has been included in an attempt to provide greater precision on the terms used. In addition, the section on the advertising of medicinal products to the public has been removed, as there are more detailed guidelines on this subject.

The regulatory framework has been updated in line with legislative changes in recent years. One of the most noteworthy additions has been the inclusion of the informative note of the Spanish Directorate General for the Common Portfolio of Services of the National Health System and Pharmacy on the use of QR codes. This note introduces the possibility of using QR codes in paper-based promotional materials aimed at healthcare professionals, in order to link it directly to the medication technical sheet, thus complying with part of the mandatory information requirements.

Upcoming legislative changes

Further legislative changes are expected in this area, which the guide does not cover, and it is important for advertisers to keep an eye on them. In April 2023, the Ministry of Health launched a public consultation on the Draft Royal Decree regulating the advertising of medicinal products for human use.

This new regulation would replace Royal Decree 1416/1994 on the advertising of medicines for human use and seeks, among other things, to establish comprehensive regulation in this area, clearly define the competences of the state and the autonomous communities in advertising, as well as adapt the regulations to the pre-eminence of digital and audiovisual media. The public consultation period for this project ended on 1 May 2023.

Osborne Clarke comment

This update of the guide by the Generalitat of Catalonia shows an effort to adapt to the new digital era, recognising the importance of establishing clear guidelines in a space where information can be easily disseminated and accessible to a wide and indeterminate audience. It is crucial that, in a constantly evolving digital environment, practices are promoted that contribute to facilitating the application of current regulations and guaranteeing quality medicine advertising that aligns with the interests of citizens' health.



* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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