Ad giant tied to ‘misinformation’ watchdog NewsGuard hit with massive settlement for spreading Pharma misinfo

The division of the multinational advertising and public relations giant Publicis Groupe SA agreed to a $350 million settlement for the part it played in the opioid crisis.

“State attorneys general claimed Publicis Health played an integral role in developing ‘predatory and deceptive marketing strategies’ for Purdue Pharma that increased prescriptions and sales of OxyContin, and made the opioid crisis more devastating,” ABC News reported of the “first-ever settlement with an advertising company for its role in the opioid crisis.”

The healthcare communications network is a division of French advertising giant Publicis Groupe, and the companies ironically partnered with so-called “disinformation watchdog” NewsGuard in 2021 to “bring more transparency and trust” to news sites.

“Today’s filings describe how Publicis’ work contributed to the crisis by helping Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers market and sell opioids,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a press release.

“Court documents detail how Publicis acted as Purdue’s agency of record for all its branded opioid drugs, including OxyContin, even developing sales tactics that relied on farming data from recordings of personal health-related in-office conversations between patients and providers,” Wilson added.

“The company was also instrumental in Purdue’s decision to market OxyContin to providers on patient’s electronic health records,” the press release noted.

ABC News reported:

According to the states’ lawsuits, Publicis Health implemented a strategy developed for Purdue Pharma by McKinsey & Co. known as “Evolve to Excellence.” The strategy targeted doctors who prescribed the most OxyContin and inundated them with messaging touting the “abuse-deterrent” aspects of OxyContin and encouraging increased dosages. McKinsey & Co. separately agreed to pay $641 million to resolve claims by a number of states.


“For a decade, Publicis helped opioid manufacturers like Purdue Pharma convince doctors to overprescribe opioids, directly fueling the opioid crisis and causing the devastation of communities nationwide,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said.

“No amount of money can compensate for lives lost and addiction suffered, but with this agreement, Publicis will cease their illegal behavior and pay $350 million to help our communities rebuild,” James added.

Back in 2021, NewsGuard touted its partnership with the ad and PR company.

“Through the partnership, Publicis Groupe clients will gain access to NewsGuard’s Responsible Advertising for News Segments (RANS), an inclusion and exclusion tool for marketers curated by NewsGuard’s team of trained journalists. This tool provides Publicis Groupe clients with a constantly updated exclusion list to protect them from having their ads unintentionally fund thousands of misinformation and hoax websites,” the company said in a news release at the time.

But, as independent journalist Lee Fang noted in a November article, “NewsGuard has faced mounting criticism that rather than serving as a neutral public service against online propaganda, it instead acts as an opaque proxy for its government and corporate clients to stifle views that simply run counter to their own interests.”

Fang also noted that “NewsGuard’s largest investor and the biggest conglomerate of marketing agencies in the world” is Publicis Groupe, “which has integrated NewsGuard’s technology into its fleet of subsidiaries that place online advertising.”

The ad giant celebrated the launch of NewsGuard to “fight fake news” as it touted its $6 million investment in the company amid the push to combat the  “’infodemic’ of misinformation.”

The Purdue Pharma lawsuit and subsequent settlement focused a spotlight on the hypocrisy of the “disinformation” efforts.

“Publicis worked with Purdue Pharma and other large pharmaceutical corporations to push highly addictive opioids, such as OxyContin, through sales tactics that included exploiting medical data obtained from recordings of in-office discussions between doctors and patients,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), said in a press release. “These actions contributed to an epidemic of opioid addiction and deaths in Texas, which has resulted in more than 22,600 deaths in the state since 2006.”

Publicis has to pay the settlement amount within 60 days and is “prohibited from ‘accepting any future contracts or engagements’ involving opioid marketing or sale, and is required to release ‘hundreds of thousands’ of internal documents related to its work with manufacturers and consultants,” Forbes reported.

Publicis Health said in a statement that the settlement was “in no way an admission of wrongdoing or liability.”

Frieda Powers


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