I’d finally finished my work for the night, and had just settled into bed to watch my DVR’d episode of Once Upon a Time (best show on television right now, by the way). Breasts and bottles were the last thing on my mind, until I was zipping through the commercials and glimpsed a formula can. Of course I had to stop fast-forwarding and watch, and here is what I saw:
Cute baby, but that’s beside the point.
This ad got me very riled up, and – dare I say it – took me out of the (in my case, very willing) suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a show about fairy tale characters come to life.
I am not against formula advertising, any more than I’m against cell phone advertising, or baby food advertising, or car advertising. In fact, considering I still do some commercial acting on the side, I’m fully in favor of advertising as an industry. (Except pharmaceutical ads, because they make me a total hypochondriac.) But this ad rubbed me the wrong way, for one major reason: why is an ad about formula focusing so much on breastfeeding?
Obviously, I know why. Anyone who frequents this blog knows why. In the US, this is about as close as we get to following WHO Code. The formula companies can do pretty much whatever they please, so long as they tack a “breast is best!!” message onto it. I’ve talked about this before, in regards to shady practices like running “breastfeeding support lines” or sponsoring “feeding guides” that talk far more about breastfeeding than bottle feeding. I think it is hypocritical, and demeaning to the intelligence of parents. If you were to ask me (a lifelong vegetarian, sometimes vegan) for a recommendation on the best steakhouse in town, I’d worry about your sanity. Likewise, relying on a formula company for breastfeeding advice is probably not the wisest move.
Nestle, who makes Good Start, has a reverse halo effect that is going to take about 1000 years to dissipate. Anyone who is involved in breastfeeding advocacy thinks the company is the devil, and for very good reason. Saying the words “Gerber knows that breastfeeding is best” comes off as totally disingenuous. It’s not going to make up for the thousands of deaths the company caused by marketing formula irresponsibly. Unfortunately, Gerber probably feels it has to make the requisite breast-is-better
statements because the company is making claims (which are indeed backed by research) that this particular formula has been associated with a lower risk of allergies. (They even go one step further than most formula ads, subtly suggesting that their customers will most certainly be breastfeeding up until a point with the phrasing “if you do decide to introduce formula…”) Anyway… all this is to say, I get it. I get why they constructed the verbiage of the ad this way.
But this is what hit me last night, when I should have been enjoying some mindless entertainment: the fact that formula company advertising involves so much discussion about breastfeeding being superior, might actually be hurting breastfeeding advocacy.
By talking about breastfeeding being the best way to feed your child, the advertisers are immediately creating an unconscious comparison between the two feeding methods. Comparisons necessitate qualifications like good, better, best. Parents might decide (quite justifiably, in my opinion, but that is neither here nor there) that better is pretty darn close to best, so why go to the trouble of breastfeeding?Within this model, breastmilk is also seen as a competitor to formula, which inspires subliminal pro/con lists in our heads.
What if Gerber hadn’t mentioned breastfeeding in this ad? The downside, I suppose, would be the implication that this formula could protect against allergies better than breastmilk. But that could be accomplished by making accurate claims, a rule that all advertisements are expected to follow, even if they don’t always do so. (I would suggest simply giving some statistical information, i.e, “Studies have found that breastfeeding exclusively for the first four months is associated with x amount of reduced risk of allergies. Gerber Good Start has been found to decrease the incidence by x,” but that is probably why I don’t write ad copy…)
If formula could just be advertised as formula, instead of a poor man’s substitute for breastmilk, we wouldn’t lead consumers into a nebulous cloud of comparison. Because honestly, why compare the two? They are two different ways to get a child fed. The benefits and risks of breastmilk are fodder for a conversation between a care provider and patient, not the territory of a money-grubbing corporate conglomerate or over-zealous activists. What if we simply held formula companies to the same standards as, say, pharmaceutical corporations? No false claims; caveats of “talk to your doctor” if there are any statistics or medical studies cited.
Extolling the virtues of what is essentially a competing product (which is why I passionately believe we need to stop commoditizing breastmilk, but that would entail a much longer conversation than I want to have right now, as I have the rest of that episode waiting for me and it’s getting quite late) is something unique to formula advertising, and I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish that breastfeeding advocates could see that making formula companies pay homage to the Almighty Breast is serving no one. It just makes for a confusing and annoying ad, and we don’t need more of those cluttering up our DVRs and ruining a perfectly good evening of escapist television.