The RealAge controversy

Today’s New York Times (Online Age Quiz Is a Window for Drug Makers) reveals that RealAge, a popular web-based test that provides tips on how to live better, makes money from pharmaceutical manufacturers. The article is quite balanced, but the overall impression it creates is that RealAge is hypocritical and deceitful: pretending to promote non-medical interventions and acting in the consumer’s interest, while really being a tool of the pharmaceutical industry and hiding that from people taking the test.

I haven’t paid much attention to RealAge but after having a look at the site today I don’t see what the big deal is. Maybe it’s just that I know how these sorts of sites work, but actually I think the disclosures are rather clear. Actually they are clearer than most sites’. The Times article focuses on the privacy policy, but I don’t agree that’s the place to look:

RealAge’s privacy policy does not specifically address the firm’s relationship with drug companies, but does state, in part, “we will share your personal data with third parties to fulfill the services that you have asked us to provide to you,” and it adds test results to its database only when respondents become RealAge members. Some critics, however, charge that consumers do not have enough information when they join.

I clicked on the About RealAge tab, which begins with a page on the company’s offerings. At the bottom of that page (and also along the lefthand column) is a link to the Business Overview, which includes the following statement:

RealAge Messaging
Permission-based e-mail provides relevant, sponsored, direct-to-consumer messages to targeted segments of its member base. These messages educate members about health conditions, prevention, and available health products, as well as motivate the members to improve their health choices, talk to their healthcare provider when appropriate, and seek out relevant health products and condition-specific medications when needed.

Of course the drug companies are going to be customers. After all drug companies are customers of almost every consumer-oriented health or medical website. RealAge doesn’t pass any information about consumers to the drug companies or other customers. It simply channels emails to consumers in its database based on parameters drug company and other customers specify. I have no problem with this approach at all.

To me the RealAge business model is similar to the model of newspapers like the New York Times itself. That means the Times newsroom has editorial independence, while the business side sells advertising. When I brought up the online version of the Times article on my computer, an advertisement for a Toyota appeared above the article and for NuvaRing birth control appeared alongside. On the bottom were Google Ads for Oparh’s Reservatrol (which looks like an attempt to ripoff Oprah’s name), I Stopped Aging Process, and 2009s Top Wrinkle Creams. This is pretty sleazy stuff. I’d much rather get a targeted email from Pfizer.

One issue, of course, is that in a newspaper the ads and editorial content are visible side-by-side, whereas on RealAge they are separated in time and space.

March 26, 2009

4 thoughts on “The RealAge controversy”

  1. I would hardly call Dr. Oz an alt health doctor. That’s like calling Splenda natural because it is made from sugar.

    Evan

  2. Just have to give you a thumbs up on your points there Mr. Evan. Facades abound in the majority of the US ‘healthcare’ system… I forget who said it, but it also applies, “a philosophy without a technique is useless, but a technique(or treatment) without a philosophy indeed is dangerous.”

  3. I believe the survey and questions were well designed and I certainly since see nothing underhanded in there being a potential profit motive involved in the survey; in fact, that’s what makes the world go ’round.
    I would apprecaite receiving the findings resukting from my responses. Thank you – rkd

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