Google ad warning could prevent skin cancer cases

UC San Francisco researchers created online ads targeting sun bed users

Online advertising based on Google search terms could be an effective way to prevent skin cancer cases, according to a study led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

The team created a series of nine Google Adwords – a pay-per-click online service – about the risks associated with indoor tanning that appeared next to search results when Google users typed in common search terms when looking for information about tanning beds. Clicking on the ads took users to a UCSF website containing information from the Centre for Disease Control about the health risks associated with using tanning beds. The ads appeared between April and June 2015 – a period when online searches for tanning beds is highest.

The most successful of the ads read: "The Truth of Tanning Beds/Do you know what you are doing to your skin?/Educate yourself!". It was viewed by 198,276 users, with 1.04% of users clicking on the ad. A 1% click-through rate is generally considered commercially viable for online advertising.

Tanning beds are one of the biggest preventable risk factors for skin cancer, causing almost half a million malignant cases each year. Eleni Linos MD DrPH, an assistant professor of dermatology at the university and leader of the team, said: “More than one in five adolescents and more than half of all college students use tanning beds, which makes them especially vulnerable."

Linos added: "Using online advertising for prevention is a brand new approach, and potentially a game-changer, for public health, but we still have a lot to learn. Partnering with technology companies and social media is key. We need to figure out how to best reach large audiences and deliver messages that are relevant and meaningful to them. And the ultimate question is how these interventions will actually shift behaviours."

The study was published in JAMA Dermatology this week and was supported by Google for Nonprofits, which provided a grant to fund the advertisements.

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