Thursday, July 16, 2009

Formula Ads: How Far Is Too Far?

Although formula companies have always used aggressive marketing tactics to sell their products to as many people as possible, it seems lately they've upped the ante. Tanya at Motherwear recently blogged about Enfamil's latest deceptive marketing tactic: calling one of their formulas "The Breast Milk Formula" and having that as the title of their web page. At the time Tanya called this the most blatant form of unethical marketing she'd ever seen. Perhaps she spoke too soon.

It seems now Abbott Pharmaceuticals, makers of Similac, are trying to one-up Enfamil. Their latest tactics? The celebrity endorsement (ads featuring Extreme Home Makeover's Ty Pennington) and now, placing ads for formula in magazines not directly aimed at parents. Of course you expect to see tons of formula ads in magazines like Parenting, Parents, American Baby, etc. The entire magazines seem to be one giant advertisement for formula and although I don't think it's right (and it's a violation of the WHO Code), it makes sense to use your dollars wisely and aim for your target audience: people who have kids.

This week Similac has a 4-page spread in People magazine for its new "Early Shield" formula, which supposedly offers immune system health through a combination of "prebiotics, nucleotides and antioxidants." The ad was on thick, glossy paper and had to cost Similac a pretty penny. If you haven't seen the ad, check out the scans below.

Again, this ad appeared in People, a celebrity weekly. People, that has nothing to do with parenting, kids or babies, but does have a large female readership of childbearing age. It's depressing to think that before women are even thinking of having kids, they are now going to be bombarded with messages from the formula companies. Formula companies have the big bucks to spend on gorgeous images like the ones above of adorable, serene babies who are dependent on Similac to provide them with their immune system health. The science is bogus but the Lactivist community just can't counter offer a positive breastfeeding message because we don't have the dollars to create similar ads. Best for Babes' campaign is a good start, but how can you compete with giant pharma companies?

We do still have the power to effect change. After complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, Enfamil changed its website from "the breast formula" to "Enfamil Lipil." Let's inundate the FTC with complaints about these types of ads as well. You should also write or tweet People magazine and let them know how you feel about these types of ads. I am posting below a letter that Marsha Walker, IBCLC and Executive Director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, sent to People. Marsha has given permission for anyone to use all or part of her letter as well.

I was quite dismayed to see advertising for infant formula in your
magazine and on your Celebrity Baby Blog website. As you know, this is
a product that competes unfairly with breastfeeding, something which
many of your profiled celebrities practice. The appearance of infant
formula advertising next to photos of celebrities and their babies
implies that famous people use the product and so should readers of
your magazine and website. The use of infant formula increases the risk
of unhealthy outcomes for infants and mothers, something you would not
wish to promote. The Federal Government and all major health agencies
and organizations recommend breastfeeding as the preferred method of
feeding babies. The Healthy People 2010 health goals for the nation
from the Department of Health and Human Services specifically targets
the increase of breastfeeding as a public health intervention to reduce
acute and chronic diseases and conditions and as a method of lowering
the expenditure of scarce health care dollars.

As a way to improve the health of your readership and their children,
please consider running pro bono ads for breastfeeding in fairness to a
public health behavior that does not have large amounts of corporate
promotion dollars. Your magazine and website reach millions of women in
their childbearing years who would benefit greatly from your support of

Should you wish more information or copies of breastfeeding ads to be
placed in your magazine and on your website, please do not hesitate to
contact me.

Thank you for your time.

Marsha Walker, RN, IBCLC
Executive Director
National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy

Marsha also discussed this new trend some more with me. This is what she had to say:

Formula ads in mainstream magazines and websites is the latest tactic in formula marketing strategy. Banner ads for formula have been saturating the internet at sites than women frequent having nothing to do with children or parenting. Not only is formula marketing permeating new sites but the aggressiveness of the language used in the ads have reached new lows. Spurious claims on company websites declare that their products contain the same ingredients as breast milk, that these manufactured ingredients perform the same way that breast milk does, and that infants fed these products will enjoy the same health and cognitive outcomes as breastfed infants. Obviously, many people think the two are the same thing, especially when the terms “infant formula” and “breast milk” appear next to each other in the same sentence as equivalent nutritional sources. This was seen in a study using a Health Styles Questionnaire. In 1999, 2636 people were sampled and asked if they agreed or disagreed with a number of health statements including “Infant formula is as good as breast milk.” In 1999, 14.3% agreed with that statement. When the study was repeated in 2003, 25% of the sample agreed with the statement. Mothers have made the following statements:
• “I want the breastmilk formula”
• “I want the formula with breastmilk in it”
• “Whose breastmilk is in the formula?”

False and misleading advertising seems to work. It's time that the FTC take action against those companies that continuously misrepresent their products. The FTC needs to receive hundreds of complaints from consumers asking that this be investigated and action taken to curb this flood of deceit. Please take the time to register your complaint with the FTC today.

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