In mid-to-late October 2021, Snopes readers inquired about a meme circulating on social media that contained the misleading claim that there aren’t any commercials for COVID-19 vaccines on television because “by law they have to list the side effects. Fact Check That!”
For context, we note that only two countries allow pharmaceutical companies to market their drugs directly to the public, the U.S. and New Zealand. In the U.S., TV viewers are accustomed to seeing prescription drugs hawked to them during commercial breaks, and those ads often contain a long, eyebrow-raising list of side effects. The phenomenon is so commonplace that it’s a regular subject of parody.
The meme above exploits the fact that none of the three COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. have had that type of commercial campaign. But that’s not because the companies that produce the vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, would have to list their side effects.
The meme has been circulating on social media since at least July 2021. At that time, none of the vaccines were fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All three were approved under an emergency use authorization (EUA).
Drugs authorized under an EUA have different requirements than those approved by the FDA for advertising. For example, a letter sent to Johnson & Johnson from the FDA in June 2021, outlines that if pharmaceutical companies choose to promote a drug that is in use under an EUA, they must disclose that the product has not been approved by the FDA.
Of the three, the FDA has granted Pfizer full approval on Aug. 23, 2021, enabling Pfizer to market the shot under the brand name Comirnaty and freeing the company from the above constraints.
As the business-oriented news publication Quartz reported in September 2021, now that Pfizer has FDA approval for its vaccine, the company is ramping up an advertising campaign.
Quartz reported that Pfizer has hired the ad agency Ogilvy, and the Financial Times reported the company has been hiring up a new salesforce to promote Comirnaty as well:
“The fresh job adverts highlight how Pfizer is preparing for the next phase of the pandemic, which will involve marketing its annual booster shots in order to compete with other drugmakers including Moderna to become the booster vaccine of choice.”
In a statement emailed to Snopes, a spokesperson for Pfizer said an advertising campaign for the the vaccine is in the works:
“We cannot share our specific plans at this time. But, we plan to take a thoughtful approach to marketing and advertising COMIRNATY to the public during this time, with the goal of increasing confidence in vaccination as we continue to combat the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.”
In terms of whether drug makers are required to list the side effects of their products in TV spots, that’s not necessarily true.
According to the FDA, drug companies have to provide, “Either all the risks listed in the drug’s prescribing information or a variety of sources for viewers to find the prescribing information for the drug.” So they can either list the side effects, or tell viewers where they can find such information.
That said, none of the three companies that have produced the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. have hidden the vaccine side effects. All the side effects for the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson shots are listed on the CDC’s website, for example.
In summary, there is no evidence to support the claim that pharmaceutical companies haven’t marketed the COVID-19 vaccines directly to Americans because they would have to list the side effects.
Instead, the drug makers have been constrained by regulatory limitations associated with the vaccines being rolled out using EUAs. That said, billions of dollars are being spent by the U.S. government and philanthropic organizations on boosting public education and confidence about the vaccines and encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Now that Pfizer’s Comirnaty is approved by the FDA, Pfizer’s own statements and news reports indicate that the company is, as of this writing, preparing an ad campaign.
The side effects of the vaccines, furthermore, have been readily available to the American public since the rollout of the vaccines. We would note that the side effects for Pfizer’s shot could be described as tame, compared to the side effects listed in ads for other pharmaceuticals.
Asgari, Nikou. “Pfizer Ramps up Its Salesforce in Battle of Vaccine Boosters.” Financial Times, 29 Aug. 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/7e1c9afc-b7c8-4368-b590-6171f53a2895.
Belluz, Julia. “The US and New Zealand Are the Only Two Countries That Allow Pharma Companies to Advertise to Consumers.” Vox, 29 Sept. 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/9/29/9414145/direct-consumer-advertising-pharmaceutical-regulation.
“FDA Approves First COVID-19 Vaccine.” FDA, 23 Aug. 2021, https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-first-covid-19-vaccine.
Merelli, Annalisa. “Why Is Pfizer Advertising a Vaccine That Gets Plenty of Free Promotion?” Quartz, https://qz.com/2059769/pfizer-is-planning-to-advertise-its-covid-19-vaccine-comirnaty/. Accessed 19 Oct. 2021.
Jr, Berkeley Lovelace. “From Employer Mandates to TV Ads: What Full FDA Approval Could Mean for Covid Vaccines.” CNBC, 18 May 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/18/covid-vaccines-what-full-fda-approval-means-for-you.html.