Who is behind a new FDA website aimed at helping consumers understand and interpret direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising?

The FDA unveiled the “Be Smart about Prescription Drug Advertising” website this week and a press release notes that it was developed in collaboration with EthicAd, “a nonprofit organization devoted to improving public health through consumer education.”

EthicAd executive director Michael Shaw tells the Prescription Project that the website has been five years in the making. He says his organization was created in 1999 by a group of academics concerned about the direction of DTCA. EthicAd receives no funding from any company and is supported “mostly by contributions of individual academics.”

But we couldn’t help noticing that when we phoned EthicAd, we ended up in the voicemail system for Shaw Science Partners, founded by the same Michael Shaw and identified on its website as a “pharmaceutical marketing agency” that has been behind “30 major pharmaceutical product launches,” including Viagra, Celebrex, Zoloft and Cymbalta.   

EthicAd is open about its ties to the pharmaceutical and marketing industries. Indeed, its website says:

“If you are a part of the pharmaceutical or advertising industry and would like to work in collaboration with us in the development and adoption of DTC ethical standards, we would like to hear from you.”

According to an Advertising Age report on EthicAd from May 2000, “[w]hile the group’s primary function is to serve as a consumer advocate, it also sees its role as a supporter of pharmaceutical companies and their marketing efforts.”

An assistant to Dr. Shaw promised to provide us with a list of EthicAd members – those academics who support the organization, without even the benefit of a tax deduction (EthicAd does not have federal tax-exempt status). Two days later, we’re still waiting.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves asking just what sort of expertise is the FDA gaining with this collaboration?