Product Evaluation: How Do I Know Who is Pay-to-Play?

by Erica Mitchell | August 7 2023 | Product Evaluation, Career | 0 Comments

pay to play-01Infection preventionists and their colleagues are inundated with sales messages promoting the latest products, innovations, new formulations, and next big thing to buy for their facility. It's fairly easy to read between the lines of advertisements, weigh the scientific claims written in bold letters on a flyer, and disregard the emoji-filled email subject lines. But what about the review written up in a trade magazine? What about the speaker at a professional organization breakfast? What about the listing in a online product database? How does the busy infection preventionist or healthcare leader know when they are reading an unbiased review and when they are reading a sponsored pieced approved and paid for by the manufacturer?

Because we are way more savvy consumers today, it can be difficult to get our attention through typical means. This is why product marketers have had to take alternative routes to get our attention, even sponsoring content that looks and sounds like an unbiased review. When it comes to selecting products for your healthcare facility, you want the science, not the paid promotion. Here are some ways to spot pay-to-play content as you conduct research.

“Paid post”
“Presented by”
“Sponsored by”
“Partnered with”
“Affiliated with”
“Powered by"
Sponsored Content | Look for the words "sponsored," "paid" or "promotional." The border of the page itself may have "paid advertisement," epecially when the ad is designed to look like a real article. But this is only when the company created the ad themselves. If they paid the magazine to write the article, then it can be very difficult to tell the difference. This type of sponsored content is sold to marketers as looking real, sounding real, but getting their message directly to the reader. 

Unaffiliated Author | If you find an article reviewing a new product in a trade magazine, you could easily assume that it is written by a fellow infection preventionist or other healthcare-affiliated author. Someone who knows about infection prevention and control and is writing an unbiased reviews. In these cases, the publication will list the author's name and professional affiliations, degrees, and employer. If the article is instead written by "Staff" or a name but no affiliations are provided, you could be reading a paid, promotional piece. You may even see the company itself as the author, a detail other readers might miss, or assume the company is writing as an "industry leader." They might be an industry leader, but the article cannot be taken as an unbiased evaluation.

Links Back to a Company | Much like a press release, some sponsored content will have clear URL links to the company's product pages. This practice would not be used by a neutral author, as they would want to avoid any impression of being biased. 

Article Conveniently Paired with Large Advertisement | Sometimes, publishers will reach out to marketers and offer advertizing space to accompany an article promoting their product. In these cases, a seemingly unbiased article will have an ad for a specific product on the same page. Be extra vigilant in these cases, as the pairings are seldom random.

White Papers | These publications look and sound just like real peer-reviewed research. We dove into the differences here.

Product Lists and Endorsements | According to the Federal Trade Commission (FCC), paid endorsements must be "clear and conspicuous" so that the reader knows they may not be getting an unbiased opinion, but there are grey areas that can be difficult to navigate. Organizations and marketing platforms exist just to get companies to pay them to list their products as "approved" or "recommended" when in reality, the listing is simply pay-to-play. Additionally, paying companies are often listed as "Partners" or "Industry Affiliates" on the organization's website, providing a kind of endorsement from the agency that is in fact paid for by the company. Sadly, these money-making promotional opportunities have reached professional and trade organizations, who see this type of engagement as a source of income to supplement membership dues and donations. This puts you in the difficult position of questioning information that comes from trusted groups or associations. It also means that companies that choose not to pay are not included in lists of quality products not because they don't meet the criteria, but because they didn't pay to be on the list. The same goes for trusted individuals in the infection prevention field: They promote certain products because they are paid to do so, not because their professional experiences led them to select certain products because of their efficacy. According to the FCC, they must have actually tried the product and must be honest. These individuals, and even the associations with pay-to-play lists, are not trying to mislead the public, but they are choosing to not give the complete picture. Unless they are paid to do so.

How do you make sure the content you use to select a product is unbiased? Have you discovered any tips? Share your thoughts below!