Black Box Paid Search Ads Showing on Right Rail

pharmacy-pillsMarketing in the pharmaceutical industry is a restricted area to play in. With the FDA restricting what can and cannot be said in advertisements, many companies limit what innovative tactics are utilized to promote brands.

Thankfully, paid search has become a widely accepted form of advertising for pharmaceutical brands over the past few years. While ads still have a significant amount of red tape to navigate to before being approved by internal regulatory and legal teams, most brands are able to target and drive high-quality traffic via paid search on Google and Bing.

Black Box Drugs & Paid Search Advertising

For drugs labeled “black box drugs” by the FDA, advertising is even more restricted than traditional brands. Drugs that receive this label from the FDA could cause serious or even potentially fatal side effects.

This is the strongest warning label provided by the FDA. For this reason, many pharmaceutical companies that market black box drugs become very cautious with their advertising efforts.

Within search engine results, black box ads are required to include an additional description line that links to the important safety information on the brand website. Traditionally, if a black box drug is advertised, the ISI must accompany it.

With limited character counts available in a paid search ad, this additional piece of text appears below the second description line. It is also important to note that this additional line of text only needs to appear when a branded ad is shown.

Here’s an example of what a black box ad on Google looks like:


The line of text highlighted in red is the additional line of text that is required. Note that this additional line of text cannot be added within AdWords. The ads must be sent via bulksheet to your Google reps to be uploaded manually.

As with many ad extensions, these ads have always been seen in the top three paid search results. Up until last week, black box ads didn’t appear on the right rail. As seen in the screenshot below, an example of a black box ad appearing in the right rail has occurred.

UPDATE (June 26): We believe that the ad generated below was the result of session-based broad matching, served at Google’s discretion and not at the explicit instruction of the advertiser.


In the pharmaceutical space, the standard and most commonly utilized approach to paid search is to display a branded ad for branded search queries, and to display an unbranded or disease state awareness ad for unbranded queries. This case shown above has the brand ad being shown after searching for [low testosterone], which is an unbranded query.

Many pharmaceutical companies consider showing a branded ad on an unbranded query to be a “claim,” which in their eyes is a violation of the FDA’s guidance. Due to this, most likely there have been limited chances for black box ads to appear on the right rail. Because branded ads are usually utilized for branded queries, quality scores are most likely high, pushing the ad to the top of results.

How Does This Change Affect Pharma Marketers?

With brands now beginning to leverage branded ads on unbranded queries, we may begin to see other advertisers following suit. With many legal and regulatory departments not wanting to be first to market with a specific tactic, seeing an example like this could prompt others to feel comfortable.

One potential issue that could arise, based on search behavior of consumers and health care professionals, is that they often don’t trust brand websites when searching for unbiased third party content. This is one reason they are most likely searching for an unbranded query and not utilizing brand names that they have been exposed to through other forms of advertising. With this in mind, CTR could drop for those opting for branded ads, which could lead to a decrease in quality score and overall performance.

As any good search marketing manager knows, this can present an opportunity to test a new variation of ad text, and scale as needed if performance is warranted.

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