The marketing firm that asked us to publish a post urging cash-strapped graduates and unpaid interns to consider clinical trials as a solution to your money worries has been sacked by the drug company they were representing.

Earlier this week, we reported that Touchpoint Digital – representing drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) – proposed a guest post on Graduate Fog stressing the financial benefits of participating in drug trials. The text boasted that taking part could provide hard-up graduates with an “immediate income to tide you over during the coming months,” totalling up to £8,000 a year and therefore “could be your solution” to any financial problems you’re experiencing.

Although clinical trials are vital for the advancement of medical research, we found it crass and inappropriate to target young people struggling to get their careers started in this way.

Dr Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma, agreed that the approach seemed to be in poor taste, saying:

“This is an appalling story and we should all be grateful to Graduate Fog for exposing it. As a society, we need healthy subjects to participate in early drug trials, for medicine to progress, but that process needs to be managed respectfully.

“The language being used to recruit impoverished graduates into these GSK trials is crass and exploitative. It should disgust anyone ethical involved in medicine or drug development. We can only wonder how many more similar stories have been lost beneath the radar.”

Now, GSK have responded, admitting the approach was misjudged. On Friday a spokesperson posted this comment below the story on Graduate Fog:

“We agree that the tone used in this piece above is wrong. It trivialises the role of clinical trials in developing new medicines and the part our volunteers play in that process. This isn’t acceptable and we’re looking into what happened.

“Clinical trials are important in helping us develop new medicines. It is important that we find the right volunteers and it is right that they are paid for their time. But we need to talk about trials in a serious way and be thoughtful about volunteers’ contributions and how their actions help advance medical research.”

And now the drug giant has confirmed that it has parted company with Touchpoint Digital, assuring the Observer that GSK does not usually “specifically target young people in ads for clinical trial participants or approve of the use of inducements to recruit subjects of any age”. 

It added: “In this specific case, the agency was asked to create a general advertisement for clinical trial enrolment. We’re no longer working with the agency.”

In separate correspondence with, the spokesperson admitted that the proposed text had “focussed very heavily on payment, and actually we wouldn’t recruit solely on the basis of payment.”

We don’t know much about the law on promoting participation in clinical trials, but something about this approach felt very wrong to us.

Many of Graduate Fog’s readers are feeling very low, vulnerable and desperate for money. Many are unemployed. Others are in low-paid graduate jobs, doing unpaid internships or zero-hours contracts. Every month, at least 20 people find Graduate Fog by Googling phrases like ‘graduate suicide’ or ‘hopeless graduate’. We take that responsibility very seriously.

We understand that clinical trials are vital for the advancement of medical research, but drug companies like GSK must be more careful with how they approach vulnerable groups, including the young unemployed. Suggesting that participation in clinical trials is a great way to earn easy cash is not just crass, it is downright irresponsible.

We’re pleased to see GSK take action and sack Touchpoint Digital – but we are not sure it is fair to lay all the blame on their agency.

If GSK are going to outsource their digital marketing, they need to have a strict control over the methods their agency uses and the nature of the content they push out to websites like Graduate Fog. They clearly didn’t in this case.

We would also like to know what would have happened if we had posted this article as they proposed. Presumably someone at GSK would have been shown it at some point (marketing agencies always show their clients when they place a story somewhere). Would someone from GSK then have asked us to take it down, when they discovered how the content was worded?

What did you think of the guest post they proposed? If you’re doing a low-paid graduate job or an unpaid internship, would you consider taking part in clinical trials as a way to make extra money?

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