Hair loss? Anxiety? Depression? There are pills
for that—click right this way. In this context,
medicine becomes a form of online marketing.
And doctors, regardless of their compensation
structure or company affiliation, are just one
more step in the purchase funnel.
Serial entrepreneur Sid Viswanathan
was looking for a new project a few years ago.
He had sold his startup Cardmunch, a mobile
app that transcribes business cards, to
LinkedIn in 2011, and was working at the so-
cial network as a product manager. Intrigued
by telemedicine, he typed the words
gloss over the risks. “The federal government
has collected billions of dollars over the past
few decades going after pharmaceutical com-
panies for off-label promotion,” he says. But
the direct-to-consumer startups inhabit a legal
gray area: “These companies are not manufac-
turers, labelers, or medical practitioners. They
don’t really fit any description of entities that
the FDA regulates.” At least, not yet.
In the meantime, Cortez sees the Federal
Trade Commission, which enforces advertising standards, as the regulatory body more
likely to rein in these startups’ marketing
practices. But it has a lot of catching up to do.
In their quest to acquire new customers,
direct-to-consumer telemedicine companies
have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on
advertising on social media, television, and (of
course) the New York City subway system.
Hims has partnered with the likes of rapper
Snoop Dogg to promote its services on TV; its
subway ads feature graphically aspirational
cacti. Ro has employed playful slogans such as
“Erectile dysfunction meds you definitely
don’t need, but your ‘friend’ was asking about.”
The messages tend to talk about problems and
symptoms—the sorts of things you might
nervously type into Google. Sexual problems?
Drugs at your
There’s a world of medicine available online.
Here’s a look at the biggest prescription-drug players,
and some of the conditions they address.
M E N’S
HEALTH COSMETIC WOMEN’S HEALTH MENTAL HEALTH MISC.
cals began produc-
ing this generic
version of Viagra
in 2017—the same
year that Ro and
Propecia went off
patent in 2013. Within
four years, Roman,
Hims, Keeps, and
Lemonaid were sell-
ing the generic.
company Sprout sells
this libido medica-
tion, also known as
Addyi, directly to
companies like Hers.
The FDA has
approved this medi-
cation for high
blood pressure; Hims
and Kick Health
market it for perfor-
Lemonaid sells the
generic of Zoloft
for anxiety and de-
pression; Hims and
Ro prescribe it as an
off-label cure for pre-
herpes, UTI, anxiety/
depression, hair loss,
sinus infection, flu
ED, enlarged prostate,
hair loss, vaginal
dryness, hot flashes,
ED, premature ejacu-
lation, hair loss,
desire disorder, per-