The Bull(shit) That Wouldn’t Die: The 2003 DHHS Breastfeeding Ad Rears its Ugly Head

I had fully intended on coming on here tonight to post for the first time in months; easing back into  things with an innocuous little piece about how my first four months with my daughter had been… It would be a lighthearted foray back into the blogging world, and then I’d go clean my kitchen.

But now my dishes are going to have to stay dirty.

See, back in ’03, the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women’s Health, put out this piece of drivel. It basically compares not breastfeeding to riding a mechanical bull while pregnant.

I have an entire chapter about this in my book, but I think you’ll get the point I spent 32 double-spaced pages making by watching the ad. So go do it, and then come back here.

 Back already? Did you throw up in your mouth a little? Sorry about that.

A lot of people got angry about the ad,  not only because it was misleading, but also because it was degrading and insulting and wrong on so many levels that it needs a freaking elevator. The Executive Committee of the AAP spoke out against the campaign, which of course they only did because they were in the pockets of big formula, and not because they had compassion for parents or the ability to understand the faulty science behind the claims stated in the ad. Or so the Breastfeeding Section of that same organization loves to tell us. Anyway, in the end, the ads got pulled; a lot of breastfeeding advocates were pissed; and the whole thing went down in the lactivist history books as a colossal FAIL. I’ve seen the destruction of this ad campagin referenced as one of the prime examples of how the formula companies have duped women. If we’d only been so privileged to see this ad, then maybe we would have breastfed. Or at least we would’ve known that we were horrible, unfit parents if we’d decided not to.

A few people had mentioned that they thought they’d seen the ad recently, to which I’d replied, assuredly,  “No flipping way. That thing has been good and dead for eight years!” But then I got this email today, from my friend  Kristine (she doesn’t have kids yet, but she’s a smart cookie and works as a high-end baby nurse, where she’s seen the breast-vs-bottle craziness firsthand, so I think we can consider her an honorary FFF) who wrote while she was watching Southern California’s K-CAL 9:

Um.. I’m so annoyed – they just showed a tv commercial with a woman who was supposed to be pregnant riding a mechanical bull and then she falls off. Next, there is a caption that says, “You wouldn’t take risks before your baby is born, why start after? Breastfeed exclusively for 6 months.” And then, a voiceover states that recent studies show breastfed babies are less likely to develop ear infections, respiratory infections and diarrhea. Babies were born to be breastfed.”  You probably already know about this from writing your book, but I wish there was a way to sue the pants off of them for putting that on the air. That commercial probably just made some poor woman, that’s sitting there trying to breastfeed, no milk coming out, her nipples bleeding, and her starving child screaming, cry her eyes out. Assholes. 

I immediately emailed her back to confirm she’d seen this on live TV, and hadn’t accidentally stepped into a Delorean. But the Bull(shit) is apparently back.

I think it is particularly insidious that this thing got resurrected with so little fanfare. Considering the brouhaha that went down when DHHS and the Ad Council tried to run the ad last time, it strikes me as odd that they would suddenly start running it again, especially in a manner so under the radar. The first time the ads came out, there was a media blitz; the folks responsible were bragging about their advertising genius to anyone who would listen. (Obviously, whoever taught them Advertising 101 neglected to mention that guilt and fear appeals can have a rebound effect; if you scare or induce guilt to enough of an extent, you piss off your audience.) But this go-around, the ads are popping up innocently during reruns of Scrubs, and no one has bothered to explain what has changed in eight years that makes it okay for these insulting, ridiculous PSAs to be inflicted on the public.

I would like to start a grassroots campaign to run these ads back into the hole from whence they came. I’m not sure how to go about doing this; PSA’s are tricky, both in the way they are made and the way that they get distributed. Who do we protest to? The stations running the ads? The Ad Council? DHHS? (I’m thinking of writing a letter to Obama, since DHHS is a government thing, but considering Michelle’s stance on breastfeeding I assume it would fall on deaf ears. Plus he’s probably a bit distracted at the moment, what with finally killing Bin Laden and all….) If anyone has any thoughts, please share. I know we are just a tiny, mostly disliked corner of the mommy blogosphere, but someone has to speak up for that woman Kristine referenced.

And speaking of which… Guilt-Ridden Woman with the Bleeding Nipples, if you’re reading this, listen up. Not breastfeeding is NOTHING like bull riding while pregnant. The people who created this ad fully intended on scaring you, making you feel like only a craptastic mother would feed her child formula. The ads completely ignore the myriad reasons that women do not breastfeed. They do not address the societal factors that impede breastfeeding, nor the physical problems that can happen, nor the emotional/professional/personal reasons that women have for performing their own risk assessment and deciding whether breastfeeding is right for their families. They ignore the father completely, making it seem like this is only a mother’s decision; only a mother’s fault. They over-simplify the science. The kind of woman who would risk riding a mechanical bull – in a bar, no less – has nothing to do with you or your decision to use your breasts to feed your child. Turn off your television, and take a deep breath. If I could hug you, I would.

For the rest of you… I guess this is the closest we’ve come to a Fearless Formula Feeder Call to Arms. I am going to investigate the best way to counteract these ads, but in the meantime, keep an eye out for them and let me know the station/location/time/show that they appear on.

I’m a lifelong vegetarian, so I never thought I’d say this, but… let’s slaughter the bull.

About the Author:

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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