Ever buy a face cream that cost too much because you saw the glossy ad in Vogue? Tried out a new restaurant because the people in the ad looked so happy and healthy? Or more insidiously, go and raid the fridge after 10 minutes of food commercials on t.v.? We all do it. Some of us are a little more aware of what is going on than others, but no one, unless you live under a rock, is exempt.
When I taught undergraduate gender studies classes we used to spend a lot of time on “media literacy,” which is a fancy way of saying we were unpacking the garbage we are led to believe is true. And for the most part, we have been duped. Suckered. Tricked. This is the nature of advertising. Professionals spend years learning psychology so they can market products to us that really, we don’t need. There are plenty of places where this convincing and advertising has been hurting our collective health: Tobacco advertising, junk food ads, fast food promos, get skinny quick products, just to name a few.
But today, I’m going to take on a big one: baby formula advertising.
It is World Breastfeeding Week, so what better time to talk about formula advertising? Because if you are not breastfeeding an infant/toddler, what are you feeding them? For most people it is formula. Just the name, “formula,” doesn’t it make you think of something scientific, good, “formulated” and better? What if it was called “artificial baby milk” instead? Would the perception change? “Artificial” is harder to sell. It sounds “fake.” Maybe not as good as the “real” thing. Ever seen the ads for the products in parenting magazines? The images are all pretty, parents look happy and well-rested. The copy reads with word like “healthy”; “immune support”; “brain development” and my personal favorite, “best for your baby.”
What if the copy was more accurate: “made from 70% corn syrup and sugar” or “higher rates of gastro-intestinal problems?” Check out this Truth in Advertising Label that the folks over at International Symbol of Breastfeeding created. Yikes.
As my disclaimer, this post is NOT about bashing formula-feeding parents. It is about media literacy. Unpacking the garbage we all have been led to believe is true. We have all been led to believe that infant formulas are just as good as breastmilk. So it’s really about the “mother’s choice”. This is dangerous territory. Because now, breastfeeding is being brought front and center as a public health issue. To NOT breastfeed means you are contributing to the health demise of a nation! Shame on you! Seriously, we do not need more woman-mother-hating. We have plenty of that, thank you very much. What I’m saying is that the public health issue of infant health is far too big to place on any individual person or parent. We all have to take a little responsibility. It takes a village, right?
From my lactation educator class, “The First Rule of Breastfeeding: You did the best you could with the information and support you had”. And if the information you get is paid for by formula companies (they spend MLLIONS a year advertising), then mothers and fathers are not getting the whole picture, and can therefore not be held responsible for their so-called “choices.” I prefer to take a step back and take a look at the bigger system that creates the illusion of certain choices.
Most parents do not know that there is a very long history and global debate around baby formula marketing. Here is a short summary, from Breastfeeding.com:
During the 1970s and early 1980s, many Americans were shocked at television images of severely malnourished “bottle-babies” from various third-world nations, as consumer advocacy groups alerted citizens for the first time to the marketing practices being employed abroad by infant formula manufacturers. These advocacy groups described how physicians and other health care providers in the developing world were being bribed by formula manufacturers to steer patients away from breastfeeding and toward particular brands of artificial breastmilk substitutes. Age old cultural norms of exclusive and extended breastfeeding were disrupted, as subtly effective advertising campaigns convinced women that commercial infant formula was the “modern,” “sterile,” “western” way to feed their babies.
New mothers were lured into giving birth in hospitals funded by infant formula manufacturers. Once there, these women were encouraged to offer their newborns bottles of formula. Mothers and babies were then sent home with a small “free” sample of the infant formula. By the time the supply ran out, the baby was refusing the breast, the mother’s own milk supply was diminished, and the typical, impoverished family was unable to pay for any more infant formula. These practices, combined with an unsanitary water supply, lack of sterilization and refrigeration facilities, and poor access to medical care, have conspired to kill millions of third-world babies each year, according to the WHO and UNICEF.
In 1977, a worldwide boycott was launched against Nestle Corporation, determined to be the most egregiously unethical actor in this sad drama. Consumers all over the world stopped purchasing Nestle products, and WHO convened a meeting to discuss what could be done to influence corporations marketing infant formula to end their fatal practice…
WHO subsequently drafted the International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (“The WHO Code”). The Code’s main points call for no advertising of infant formula or bottles directly to the public, and for the distribution by health care workers of factual, ethical information to parents.
The World Health Organization intended for the Code to apply to all nations, including the United States. The rest of world signed on, but the U.S. withheld it’s support until 1994, and coincidentally, our breastfeeding rates have continued to drop from the 1980’s. Today, the code is not enforced and formula manufacturers pay little attention to the rule, as you can see by the dozens of ads in parenting magazines, television commercials and hospitals. The magazines, stations and hospitals who publish and endorse these adverts and samples are in violations of the Code too. Even formula companies argue amongst themselves on advertising and false claims.
So what? We are a capitalist nation. Advertising works. People buy stuff, other people make money, this is how it works, right?
Let’s take a look at another kind of campaign: tobacco. Would you ever expect to see cigarettes or chewing tobacco advertised in your health care clinic? Would you be shocked to see your nurse’s name badge holder blazed with “Marlboro Lights” dangling from her blue scrubs? Why not? Similac and Enfamil do it. So what’s the problem?
Well, tobacco is bad for your health. Everyone knows that. There is a long history of regulating tobacco advertising because it is recognized as a public health issue. Anti-tobacco campaigns, such as those studied in Florida, have been found to be pretty successful in changing attitudes about smoking. Not breastfeeding is also a public health issue. See the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Breastfeeding. They say,
Marketing of infant formula within communities is another influence on breastfeeding. Research indicates that advertising infant formula can deter exclusive breastfeeding and the effect may be stronger among women who do not have well-defined goals for breastfeeding.
Baby Friendly Hospitals are not allowed to market formula or give out samples. From this perspective, infant formula is a last resort option, for those babies whose mother cannot produce milk (due to a medical condition or adoption), human milk from a bank is not available and all other means of getting human milk have been exhausted. This is an entirely different way to look at infant feeding, rather than whether one simply “chooses” to breastfeed or formula-feed.
The social ecological model of public health shows us that any health issue can only be properly addressed on each of the 4 levels of society. The problem with formula advertising is that it permeates all layers, and breastfeeding advocates have primarily been working only on the individual level thus far. From my feminist brain, this is not fair. It places all the responsibility for the health and well-being of infants and mothers back on individual women who live in a society that doesn’t really like breastfeeding very much.
Except perhaps the pocketbooks of a billion dollar a year industry, nationwide regulations for formula advertising are not going to hurt anyone. Continued decline of breastfeeding rates just might though.