Formula advertising isn’t evil; it’s just stupid.

My inner capitalist is about to rear her ugly head, so brace yourselves (and just for the record, so I don’t provoke an Occupy FFF – I am 100% part of the 99%.)

A reader emailed me the other night regarding a shady website sponsored by Abbot (the makers of Similac). Called “Night Nurse Nation“, the site is designed to offer information for night nurses. Now, I’m not sure if they mean the kind of night nurses that people hire to stay in their homes (like my friend Kristine), or the nurses on the night shift in hospital maternity wards. These are two very different professions; one is a private, in-home service provider adept at dealing with newborns and employed in order to let new parents get some much-needed sleep; the other is a hospital employee and medical professional. The distinction is key, because very often, people hire night nurses for the express purpose of having them deal with night feedings (although just as often the night nurse may be a doula or LC who is hired to help with breastfeeding); unless the mom is pumping, her night nurse may very well be using formula. Seems like a plausible excuse for this type of marketing, at least.

On the other hand, if the “night nurses” in question are the hospital employee type, the site takes on a more insidious meaning – because formula companies should not be blatantly marketing their products to nurses dealing with new moms; not so much because this will discourage breastfeeding, but because it may result in them pushing a particular brand of formula. For example, the site has a page about colostrum which doesn’t really explain anything about colostrum, choosing instead to focus on lutein, which is apparently REALLY important and oh yeah, guess what, it’s also in Similac formula.

That’s kind of, well, sketchy. But I’m not sure we should expect anything less from a formula company. I don’t doubt that they have teams of brilliant marketing execs sitting around expensive conference rooms, plotting how to sell more formula. But I also don’t give a crap, and here is why: Formula companies are big corporations. If Big Formula were a Beatles song, it wouldn’t be All You Need is Love, but rather Money. Okay, better analogy – if this industry were an animal, it would be a shark rather than a furry bunny rabbit. We wouldn’t expect a shark to snuggle up to us and wiggle it’s nose for a carrot, right? So why do we expect a company to go against its Darwinian instinct to make money and sell, sell, sell?

Interestingly, when I told Fearless Husband about this post, he shook his head. “I don’t think all they care about is money,” he said. “If all they cared about was money, they’d stop doing R&D.” But as much as I’d like to agree with him, I think that logic is flawed. Better product means better sales, which means – you guessed it – more money.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not in any way believe that these days, formula companies are the reason for sub-par breastfeeding rates (unless you believe their very existence, and hence the availability of formula itself is to blame…if you believe that, then I doubt you care too much about what I have to say anyway). But I do think they are guilty of misguided, and sometimes slimy, behavior in their quest to sell product. And that’s okay. We can’t expect them to behave any differently from other big industries. They should not have to be held to a higher standard simply because the product they hawk is controversial.

Just because I’m a realist about how these companies operate, though, doesn’t mean I don’t wish they would find some less-gross ways to market themselves. We do not adhere to WHO Code in this country; therefore the formula companies should not have to stoop to bottom-feeding lows like running “breastfeeding help lines” (seriously?) or websites directed at care providers working with postpartum moms. I believe they have a right to do these things, but I also think it’s plain dumb that they do. They aren’t fooling anyone by pretending to champion breastfeeding; they are certainly not going to pacify anti-formula lactivists no matter what they do (except for dissolving their consumer product departments and become prescription-only), and as I’ve said before, it alienates their already-formula-feeding customer base.

So how should they market? Well, I’m going to pretend to be an ad exec for a moment (see, I knew my years of being a struggling actress and auditioning for commercials would pay off someday!) and present my concept for a great formula ad campaign:

Open on quick flashes of different women, with words showing up alongside their images: Had a mastectomy….On lifesaving, but contra-indicated medication… Insufficient Glandular Tissue… Sexual Abuse Survivor…. Combo-feeding…Difficult work situation….Child has severe food allergies…

After each woman’s image and corresponding tagline is shown, their “scene” become part of a tapestry, with all of the women visible on-screen. And these words appear, superimposed against the tapestry of women : Loves her baby with all her heart.*

Screen goes black, and we see a picture of a formula can, with the words: When breastfeeding isn’t an option, try Simifamilstart.

*Please note that the campaign I would run, if I ran the world, would use the words “None of your damn business, asshole” rather than “Loves her baby with all her heart”, but I doubt that would make it past the FCC)

Look. There’s no escaping the truth that formula companies have done horrible things in the past, and they will probably do many more shady things in the years to come. But other than the Nestle scandal – which was indescribably evil, no doubt – I’m not convinced that what formula companies are doing is any worse than other forms of corporate marketing used by other industries. (While we’re talking about this, I think it’s far more questionable to allow prescription drugs to be advertised every which way, as if they were consumer products, than it is to allow formula to be advertised freely. Is there a WHO Code for pharmaceuticals?) But I think if we could start approaching formula companies with more realism and less hysteria, and in turn, they could stop being so obtuse about making lame attempts at sly marketing (I mean seriously, Abbot… what’s with that Night Nurse Nation site? It’s beyond stupid) then maybe we’d get somewhere.

Here’s an even better idea: maybe the formula companies could just run innocuous ads on tv and stop spending money on “creative” marketing experts who get them into these ridiculous debacles, and instead start investing that cash into research and development? Come on, now. Don’t make a liar out of Fearless Husband.

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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19 thoughts on “Formula advertising isn’t evil; it’s just stupid.

  1. I remember Twitter having its panties in a wad a few months ago over a pump company (I can't even remember which one) making commercials. How dare a company that manufactures a product advertise that product!!! THE NERVE.

    Companies advertise. They just do. I agree, if people quite getting upset every time they advertise and let them use major channels, then the underhanded stuff would probably drop.

  2. I work for Big Pharma (in R&D, so I have no business knowledge or education), and I believe that the bottom line for this company and any company is profit. However, in order to make a profit, the company has to sell a safe, effective product. So even though the CEO and shareholders have much to gain by sale of product, the patients/consumers also benefit. Drugs can save lives, formula can save lives.

    If the product (any product) harms consumers, then 1)that product is pulled and 2)the company who made it suffers serious financial consequences and the stock takes a nosedive. So while I believe that the corporate world will do anything to make/save a buck, they are well aware that money doesn't grow on trees, so they have to sell something people want and like, that won't cause harm and that conforms to the FDA (and whatever other organizations are involved in oversight), regulations.

    On the R&D end, I think many scientists do care about helping people, including the scientists who work/ed for Abbot. But the scientists don't run the company, the business people do. The R&D people don't get to decide what to research ultimately either—that comes down to the budget and if there is a project that isn't very advanced, one that is failing, or one where there is too much market competition, that project is cut, and often, so are the scientists who were working on it.

    Scientists are hired to create a product, marketers are hired to sell it and at the end of the day, the scientists and marketers get paid, the bigwigs in the company and the shareholders make a huge profit and the consumers are happy/alive with the product.

  3. Amy, thank you for this. I think it's a valuable reminder (or explanation for those not familiar with these processes) of how pharma works. I love your point about how individuals may really be in it for the right reasons; we should separate those working for a corporation from the corporation itself.

  4. I think the same thing works the other way around. I can't tell you how many out-and-out lies I see in breastfeeding aid ads online. Breast is best (wrong). Breastfeeding makes your child smarter (wrong). Breastfeeding makes your child skinny (wrong). Breastfeeding makes your child better (wrong). Breastfeeding makes you lose weight (wrong). How are these companies any better than a pharmaceutical company? How are these companies not trying to guilt trip, persuade, cajole, put the peer pressure on? They're not. Like some of the scientists and researchers at pharma companies, some of these folks have their hearts in the right place, but it doesn't change the fact that the marketing folks will use whatever methods at their disposal to convince you to buy their products.

    And they can get away with the lies a lot easier than a formula company can. The lactivist movement is very accepting of double-standards; when someone overstates the case for breastfeeding with out-and-out lies, distortions, and outdated, disproven research, there is no nurse-in outside corporate headquarters, no lactivist blog uproars with angry letters and badges with company names and big red Xes through them for the cardinal sin of lying. Contrast that with the uproar of even the most innocuous formula ad–you get folks claiming that it's tantamount to murder to even breathe the word “bottle.”

    At 3 am when I was ready to scream with nerve pain from breastfeeding, I didn't see formula ads, I saw those damn articles online and in all my pregnancy literature that make folks who can't breastfeed out to be abnormal or not trying hard enough. The ads for breastfeeding aids make it all out to be so simple–just use their product and you and your child can have soft lighting, beautiful photography, and an easy, natural breastfeeding outcome. The pressure and advice to keep nursing beyond all reason or benefit is IMO extremely harmful and in some cases far more harmful than a formula ad. The pro-breastfeeding ads send this sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle message that all babies are born to nurse–which sends the message that any child who has difficulty getting nursing going is somehow inferior to those babies happily nursing on their boppy pillows. Not a positive message at 3 am, either.

    I'm sick of the sanctimoniousness surrounding formula ads out of lactivist resources and communities. If people are THAT upset about how Nestle did things in the past, then need to do something helpful, otherwise they're just blowing smoke. Slapping an anti-Nestle banner on their blogs is just slactivism; with the same number of clicks they could donate some money toward a well in developing country so women there have the same options as we do. And–bonus–people too old to breastfeed won't die of water-borne diseases, either! The griping about ads I see on some of these pages is about as productive as spitting into the ocean. It doesn't save lives, it just strokes egos. It would be far more helpful to resource authors to start a fundraising drive among their readers to donate toward clean water in developing countries. It's not as sexy, it doesn't bring about the “you go girl” chorus from other bloggers and commentators, but it gets a hell of a lot more done.

  5. I like your point, and I liked this post, too. But I do think that it is important to raise awareness that advertising is such a powerful force for commerce and greed in our modern world. There's a lot of coded language about formula out there in advertising that skirts the line of being flat-out lies.

    Don't throw stones at me, but I breastfeed—and I do donate to developing countries to fund clean water projects. So it's not entirely fair to stereotype all breastfeeding moms under one sanctimonious banner like that. I think what Nestle did was deplorable, and I do think that the recent death of a child due to formula-feeding was more likely due to the water supply here, as well. I think it's tragic and very, very sad. I think it's also sad to find out that individuals in poverty in this country are more likely to formula feed and more likely to dilute their formula to make it last longer. Clearly, more education and more support is needed so that children can grow and get the nutrition they need without their parents worrying about the cost of the next can.

    And I also believe that most women who try to breastfeed, but can't, feel terrible enough about it that those who could should back off already—while at the same time, recognizing that for moms-to-be who are weighing their options, breast is not best, it's simply the norm. And there are valid and sound reasons for both choices, and both come with benefits and drawbacks, but they are not equal. I have had a hell of a time breastfeeding and still struggle with it, so I completely hear you there about the women who judge and condemn without knowing the full story. But I do think it's not unreasonable to encourage women to breastfeed, in the face of misleading ads, unhelpful medical professionals, and images in the media. That's my two cents. 🙂

  6. Well said. It also rubs me the wrong way to think that those who bottle feed have to justify it as some sort of reaction to extreme and dramatic circumstances. No ads for other medicines are oblige to say “you really should stop eating fat and have exercised your whole life but if you have a true genetic propensity to heart disease and were force-fed cholesterol as a child, here's our medicine to help you out.” Why should formula companies have to justify what they do any more than any other food or medical product? Produce a safe product and that's it, people want to consume it, let them. Frankly it annoys me that they feel they have to support breastfeeding or that anyone feels they should have to justify their production this way. And I'm not a big old capitalist by any means.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I HATE formula companies (NOT formula feeders!!!!!) and I wish there was a way to manufacture it so it wasn't about profit but about the needs of the woman and the baby. I wish formula companies would be taken over by non profits and therefore all the profit would be turned over into research and development and/or helping get like Teri mentioned, water into developing countries so that women could if they live in one, feed their baby safely if unable or not wanting to breastfeed. My mom and dad were in Africa this winter visiting friends. One of the family members had IGT, and HAD to supplement. She had to in addition to the formula, purchase bottled water which was almost as expensive as the formula because the water coming from their pump was unsafe for the baby. This family wasn't rich by any stretch of the imagination. Dirt floors, no running water, plumbing or electricity.

    They need to make it less about the money and more about the mamas. Teri mentioned breastfeeding assistance ads too- Its even worse than she says…. You have to have a special type of bottle that completely mimics the breast, you HAVE to have the $400 pump otherwise your baby will starve. Well, I only had a hand operated pump and my son is doing just fine at 22 months. (We're considering weaning as i'm almost 13 weeks pregnant with thing #2). Despite the product its ALL about money these days. They don't give a flying rats patotie about ANY thing else.

    Lets face it, being a mama is hard, whether your breastfeed or formula feed. There are HUGE challenges to both.

  8. Um. Where are you getting your 'wrong's from? These points are scientifically proven at this stage.

    You're not alone in having a painful and stressful breastfeeding experience, but I think it's easy to misplace the blame – it should lie with a health service that promotes breastfeeding as 'best' but then fails to support women in helping them address and overcome the problems they can face. This IS something to be angry about, but it's not the right response to blame breastfeeders for their support of it.

    You're wrong about lying, and I'm not sure that Nestle have changed their marketing approach in third world countries? Have they? If they have, it's something to celebrate, but last I heard their CEO was making statements about how it was unethical for a company to avoid making a profit and nothing beyond that. Sure, donating to clean water is a good idea, but promoting formula feeding in third world countries would still have a disastrous effect on the immune systems of the children there, as does our low breastfeeding rates in Irish children, for example.

    Some recent research:

    I completely agree and sympathise about the 3 am crisis, but blame the system that does not have the answers and skills to prevent this rather than the promotion of breastfeeding. I think it's the system that failed you by not helping you to have the breastfeeding experience you wanted that is at fault, not breastfeeding itself.

    To address the point below about profit – if we were acting in the best interests of the babies whose mothers can't feed them, we would be financing and educating about human milk banks, thereby saving children's lives in some cases. Formula is not the first or best option for a mother who can't feed her baby. We have a long way to come, and you need to look more deeply at the status quo before you attack breastfeeding itself – formula advertising and promotion deeply affects women's choices and is insidious.

    'Don't throw stones at me but I breastfeed' as noted below is such a sad opening. Apologising for breastfeeding is not ok! I don't think artificial milk feeders should apologise either, but I think some women should get angry about the lack of the support they had and the cultural and economic reasons behind some of the choices they made.


    This is a long but pretty comprehensive look at what Formula companies do. Now, my choice to breastfeed did not come from pressure from my health service, and yes, I had trouble getting the breastfeeding support I needed with both my kids. I had quite some pain to deal with too, but in my case, the struggle was worth it, given my emotional connection to breastfeeding and the importance I feel it has.

    I completely understand that if someone does NOT have that emotional connection and feels pressured – and does not believe in the evidence of the effects of formula feeding v breastfeeding, sure, the attitudes she would encounter would be angry making. I know breastfeeders need to find a way to promote their cause without seeming to judge. Personally, I think targeting any mother is the wrong way to do it, and I really don't mean to do that with these comments.

    However, I think we all need to have our eyes wide open, and be able to keep an open dialogue about these issues, and share information. We all want the best for ourselves and our babies, but believing that applies to formula companies means you're buying into their schtick.

    I'm not posting to harass anyone here, I just believe in reading as widely as possible on all these subjects. And ideally, in de-emotionalising them. A quick google shows just how much formula advertising DOES affect breastfeeding rates – backed up by free formula in hospital and maternity hospitals basically pushing it on mothers at the first sign of a breastfeeding related problem. Well, that's what happens here, anyway.

  10. Jo, I'm not sure how Teri blamed breastfeeding moms for anything?? I'm pretty sure her post was criticizing the medical authorities and online experts, not moms who are nursing…

  11. Jo, I don't expect you to read through the past 3 years of posts, but the entire purpose of this blog is to “read as widely as possible on all these subjects”. Something coming from the Alpha Parent is going to be extremely biased, though, so while I have read it, I don't think much of what she said is relevant to our discussion here. I'd be willing to discuss what someone like PhD in Parenting has to say on the subject (and I have) or the ABM. I have read, and commented on, the actual studies which suggest that formula company tactics affect breastfeeding rates, and the evidence is far from definitive.

    However, this topic is not the purpose of this particular post; I was trying to suggest that formula companies are going about advertising the wrong way, and I would assume we agree on that, at least. Nowhere did I say that we should believe what formula companies tell us, because I don't believe we should. They are corporations who are trying to market a product; not health authorities. However, when health authorities are being convinced by poor science and emotionally-driven bias, I also don't think they give 100% factual advice. It sucks that women can't get truly neutral, evidence-driven, unemotional advice on infant nutrition.

  12. Absolutely. And Jo, before you tell me “I didn't have support,” you should know that I had nothing but a veritable cheerleading squad that I sought out because I bought into all the breastfeeding “support” online. The lines of “you can't trust your doctor,” “your hospital is out to booby trap you,” etc. were all things I bought hook, line, and sinker. I had the most militant lactivist pediatrician out there–someone who told me flat out that newborns don't need food the first week because they can wait that long for mom's milk to come in. I had a LC who told me pumping was not good enough and permanently damaged the bond between mom and baby. Both told me that bottles–no matter what was in the bottles–guaranteed obesity and implied that the reason breastfed babies got fat was because their moms were selfish enough to go back to work, pump, and feed them with bottles. I had professionals telling me that my most important goal in life was to exclusively nurse–that it was the only thing that would prevent everything from food allergies to obesity. And my husband and family was behind me too…until they saw that I couldn't even pick up my child, couldn't even take care of myself because the pain was so bad.

    No, I don't blame the formula companies, and I don't blame any “system” for not breastfeeding. I was not a good candidate for breastfeeding. Period. There is no blame in that–just like there's no blame for needing glasses, or being double-jointed, or having red hair. The biological diversity in life is such that breast is not best for everyone. Myself included.

    The people I DO blame in my situation are the people who should have realized that I was not a good candidate for breastfeeding. The 3 LCs and pediatrician I consulted–the pediatrician and his nurses who wouldn't even return my phone calls once I stopped nursing because they promoted breastfeeding in the way that organizations like WHO want everyone to. I blame the militant breastfeeding zealots who made people like me out to be lazy, misinformed, stupid, worthless people because we're different from them. Realizing I was not a good candidate could have been a relatively easy thing–like finding out you need reading glasses–but because of their attitudes, it was horrible. I blame the breastfeeding resources that made it out to be “easy,” “natural,” the biological norm,” and all sorts of other lies. And yes, they're lies–they're damned lies, in some cases, because they're based on a poor understanding of statistics. They're just as much lies as anything a formula company might say. Examine this site a little closer, Jo, and you will see how FFF has shown the benefits of breastfeeding to be very overstated, and in some cases, completely wrong.

    Yes, I blame breastfeeding promotion for my 3 am crisis because breastfeeding promotion amounts to one-size-fits-all unethical medicine prescribed sight-unseen with no regard for a person's individual circumstances. In no other realm do we accept such sub-par medicine for women and children. I don't accept it for myself, and I profoundly regret accepting it for myself and my child when she was born. It's a mistake I intend to never make again, and I hope that no other woman ever makes. We women and our children are worth so much more.

  13. Like Like Like Like Like!!!! Here freaking here Teri! It is absolutely unbelievably beyond my grasp what happened to you. I've read previous posts of yours about your first pediatrician, who in my humble opinion should lose his medical license. Any LC who tells a mom that she's selfish for pumping/going back to work is truly ANTI (not pro) woman/child. I'm glad that your family saw this insantiy and how it was affecting you and supported you, rather than buying this garbage from these predators. Thank you for pointing out that booby traps exist on both sides of the fence and that militant lactivism can be just as harmful to breastfeeding as any formula company's ads (which I dont believe really are harmful to bfing). If/when I have a baby, you can bet my guard will be UP when speaking to any OB, pediatrican, nurse, etc. thanks to the warning I get from these and other posts.

  14. I am sorry you like many women (like most western women) have been lied to by the formula and dairy industries. I believed the lies and formula fed my first child and ate dairy myself for years so I am not here to feel superior. There is nothing normal about feeding children another animal’s milk, so that the animal’s children have to be killed and the animals are made to suffer, at a risk to your child’s health (and the whole nation’s health. Look into why dairy is bad for you and what animals have to go through to produce milk for human consumption). Really this website is just a bad influence. You are fueling profits for evil companies like Nestle and you are discouraging women from breastfeeding, even though you have good intentions. I am not saying you are a bad parent and should feel guilty, but the formula milk industry is really corrupt. They make profits out of discouraging women from breastfeeding their children, in some 3rd world countries as well as in the developed world. The fact that you struggled to breastfeed or felt like you couldn’t is a reason to stand up and protest and look into the reasons why rather than live in denial. It’s true that some women cannot breastfeed and healthier plant based formulas should be available on prescription for children of women who are unable to breastfeed. Making baby formula into a business is unethical. No one should be making money off of children not being breastfed or animal suffering for that matter.

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