The nationwide demand for Purell hand sanitizer has become somewhat of a meme of the Covid-19 times. Yet despite the boom in chatter and awareness, FDA restrictions are blocking the brand itself from owning or even joining the conversation around personal cleanliness and coronavirus.
A number of cleaning brands including Lysol and Ecolab have quietly plugged into the conversation around the coronavirus, producing educational materials that explain the importance of disinfecting during the global health crisis.
A representative for the Clorox Company, which has published similar public service content on its website and social channels, said the brand is also focusing on educational information “for consumers and our employees, and responding on social media to ensure people are aware of tips and guidelines on prevention.”
They added: “What we don’t do is market to fear.”
However, Purell, the best-selling hand sanitizer that has been resold for up to $149 on eBay, has scaled its comms plan back to a minimum. And other than replying to consumer queries on social media, the brand has avoided any mention of Covid-19 in its marketing.
The company and its purpose are trending – why can’t Purell join the conversation and augment this brand love?
The answer is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Purell is regulated by the FDA, unlike cleaning products, which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Although the hand sanitizer can be bought outside of pharmacies and off the shelf, Purell is classified as an over-the-counter drug. The FDA’s stringently monitors the labeling and wordage of drug manufacturers and has the power to bring the gavel down on claims it considers to be false.
And while the EPA has published a list of disinfectants to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, the FDA has not published a list of hand sanitizers that are scientifically proven to reduce the likelihood of infection. Therefore, Purell is not allowed sanctioned to link its products to preventing the coronavirus in any form.
“The FDA has very strict rules about promoting the use of hand sanitizers against mentioning specific organisms by name,” said a spokesperson for the company after The Drum requested comment on its lack of opportunistic marketing.
“Providing access to our facilities or our team members for any media story that references coronavirus and our hand sanitizer products would violate these rules.”
But Purell’s media lockdown extends beyond overt coronavirus requests and requirements.
“Unfortunately, given the current environment, we believe that the FDA could still consider our participation an act of promotion and a violation of their rules,” said the spokesperson. “We are doing the best we can to provide factual answers to your questions that are in full compliance with the FDA rules.”
The brand is implementing this approach across its social strategy, too.
In response to consumers’ questions about whether Purell kills the coronavirus, it is replying: “FDA rules prevent us from responding directly to your question on social media since it relates to an ‘unapproved use’ of hand sanitizers. Please send your question to [email protected] to speak with one of our scientific representatives. Sorry we can’t answer directly here!”
Placating the FDA
Purell’s decision to reduce comms to the bare minimum in the current climate may have been arrived at through legal paranoia rather than necessity.
“There are some companies that have legal departments that say, if we just stay quiet, nothing bad will happen,” said David Bowen, global head of health and wellness at Hill & Knowlton Strategies. “If [the company] doesn’t get the marketing promotion that’s not the lawyers’ problem.
“Getting sued is their problem and they’ll want to prevent that at all costs.”
But Purell has already got into hot water with the FDA once this year. Back in January, the administration issued a warning to parent company Gojo over its claims Purell hand sanitizers could prevent or reduce infection from the “Ebola virus, norovirus and influenza”.
The FDA noted it is ”currently not aware of any adequate and well-controlled studies demonstrating that killing or decreasing the number of bacteria or viruses on the skin by a certain magnitude produces a corresponding clinical reduction in infection or disease caused by such bacteria or virus”, and told the company to correct the violations.
Gojo responded one week later stating it had “begun updating relevant website and other digital content as directed by the FDA and are taking steps to prevent a recurrence.”
“In the area of hand sanitizers, the FDA has generally been skeptical that these products offer an advantage over washing with ordinary soap and water,” explained Jon Bigelow, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, which monitors regulation and legislation that affects health communication.
“More specifically, on 17 January this year, the FDA issued this warning letter to Gojo … requiring them to stop making claims that suggest efficacy of their product against influenza, Ebola, and norovirus.
“Given this specific warning, I can understand where Gojo would refuse to comment on coronavirus.”