WebMD is the most visited health site on the web. While the general belief is that it's a trustworthy source of "independent and objective" health information, it's become quite clear that WebMD is a shill, using its influence to primarily promote corporate-backed health strategies and products.
Partnerships and sponsorships1 color WebMD's recommendations across the board, and "passive" promotion techniques, where advertisements are designed to look more like editorials, have become commonplace.
The pharmaceutical industry's influence over WebMD has of course been evident for some time.2
As just one glaring example, back in 2010, I wrote about how WebMD's free online depression test3 was rigged in such a way that no matter how you responded the only answer you could receive was that you were at risk for major depression and should discuss your options with your doctor.
This fake test was sponsored by Eli Lilly, the maker of Cymbalta, and its function was quite clear — to get you to inquire about antidepressants.
This sneaky form of direct-to-consumer advertising masquerading as a bonafide consumer aid sparked enough furor to spur Senator Charles Grassley to launch an investigation. After all, no one expects to be directed to seek help, let alone drugs, when you have no symptoms of a problem whatsoever.
Monsanto is one of the latest multinational corporate giants to use WebMD's influence to serve its own biased agenda.
Almost every article now flaunts a Monsanto sponsored ad saying, "It's time for a bigger discussion about food," with links4 to Monsanto's biased take on soil, water, and honey bee issues, with no other contributors to the discussion in sight.
The Rise of 'Passive' Marketing
According to marketing strategists, advertorial sponsorships are the best way to sell something these days, because consumers do not realize they're being sold something.
In years past, the line between editorial and advertorial content was quite clear, and there was virtually no confusion about the fact that you were reading an ad. Today, you have to be more "eagle-eyed" to spot these differences.
A business has to pay for a sponsorship/advertorial just like it would a regular ad, and in some cases, they pay significantly more than they would for a regular ad. But the expense of a sponsorship/advertorial is considered worth it because:5
• The venue where your sponsored advertorial is going (in this case, WebMD and its affiliates) has no input on the content — the advertiser has full control over the text of the "informative" ad
• You, the advertiser, can control how the information is presented on the page, as opposed to having to select a regular display ad format.
• Although expensive, the sponsored advertorial can be used in multiple publications.
• Companies can reuse a sponsored advertorial as a stand-alone ad in other places.