With the Abbott government’s recent move to disband the MAIF agreement (Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas), many health advocates and medical professionals and are extremely concerned about what this will mean for the future of breastfeeding in Australia.
Especially when you consider a recent report found that only 50% of Australian babies are exclusively breastfed at 2 months of age, breastfeeding is already in big trouble.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has called for a ban on the promotion and advertising of infant formula, amid fears that the floodgates will burst open with a mass of unethical, sales-driven infant formula marketing.
Although the MAIF agreement was only a voluntary, self-regulatory code of conduct between the manufacturers and importers of infant formula in Australia, it was the only overseeing body Australia had in answer to the World Health Organisation's much better International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.
Of course, now the MAIF is gone, a representative from the Infant Formula Council has kindly stepped forward and offered to help the government monitor formula marketing, which would be as sensible as having a kid watch a candy store while the owner is taking a toilet break.
The whole idea behind MAIF and similar agreements is to ensure the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for babies, and to protect the promotion of breastfeeding. This means ensuring the proper use of breast milk substitutes (when necessary), based on adequate information that uses appropriate marketing and distribution. Without the MAIF agreement in place, what could we see happening?
Please note that this article is in no way providing an opinion on what is ‘best’ for a mother to do, nor is it making a judgement on those who choose to use artificial milks. It is simply pointing out the not so obvious goings-on that consumers are often oblivious to.
You wont hear this from many other pregnancy and parenting sites or magazines, because they enjoy hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars from formula companies every year. Years ago I declined an $80,000 advertising spend from a formula company for ONE campaign.
Make no mistake, this is big business. They want your eyes on their brands as early as you start thinking about getting pregnant. But I want to make a difference, not a fortune, so i'm more than happy to spill the beans.
Here are 9 sneaky ways formula companies try to get your money – even while the MAIF was in place.
#1: They’re Onto You As Soon As You Ovulate
Yes — before you're even pregnant and haven't yet breastfed, they're after you.
Just when you thought formula companies were out to lend a hand at a parent’s time of need (after they’d had a baby), it isn’t so.
In fact, formula companies begin grooming mothers-to-be before they’ve even conceived. They buy significant amounts of search engine advertising, targeting those who are in the early stages of trying to conceive and are pregnant.
See the charts below, showing typical formula company behaviour. They throw big money at an array of search engine keywords, in order to get the highest ranking results — above other (and more relevant) advertisers.
The keywords they target mean their ads will get seen as soon as a woman wants to know when she is ovulating. They aren’t only in the market for people who need it now, but they want to prepare you to use them in future.
If that's not trying to get into your head early and normalise formula, nothing is.
They also go fishing by bidding on keywords like ‘breastfeeding tips,' hoping a mother will decide to try some formula instead.
Of course, they want you to remember their brand for later. The earlier and more frequently you get brand exposure, the more trust they can build with you. It has been proven in several studies that exposure to formula promotion materials (especially prenatally) significantly increases the early cessation of breastfeeding, especially in the first 2 weeks and amongst women who are unsure of their breastfeeding goals. THIS study concluded: “Formula promotion products should be eliminated from prenatal settings”.
The trouble is that they are just so sneaky – these ads link to “helpful” information pages completely unrelated to formula – but they then have you on their website and if you like what you read, you can sign up to their mailing list for free samples and get updates for more information (and advertising) in future. They can gather information about what stage you are at, and target you accordingly.
#2: Heavily Marketing Toddler Formula
Under the MAIF or WHO agreements, formula companies are not able to pay to advertise infant formula (under 12 months of age) meaning that the only thing that they CAN throw money at is their toddler formula.
Formula companies go to great efforts to make sure that their branding, design and packaging is kept as identical as possible for both their toddler and infant milks. So while they may appear to be advertising toddler formula only, they’re really brainwashing you with their brand in general. They may even use babies in their advertising campaigns that look younger than 12 months of age.
A recent study suggested that consumers failed to distinguish the difference between advertising for infant formula and for toddler milk, and in THIS Australian study, 66.8% of respondents reported that they had seen a formula product suitable for use from birth (infant formula) advertised.
#3: Branding To The Max
From character appearances in mega sized stands at baby and children’s expos (offering free toddler milk taste testing), to trinkets and toys and full page ads in pregnancy and parenting magazines, formula companies find any way possible to get their brand out in front of the consumer. It's as if it's not a case of ‘if' you will use formula, but which one?
Formula advertising is everywhere, making formula appear as if it were something as everyday as choosing a pram or maternitywear. Some formula companies have even moved into the prenatal vitamin and merchandising business. Next we’ll be seeing formula branded ovulation tests that show positive results with messages like:
“High-5 – you just ovulated! Don’t forget to have sex tonight… and oh… would you like us to send you a sample of Einstein’s Best Platinum SA Formula (for toddlers of course)?”
#4: Using Health Professional Endorsements & Making You Feel Intelligent For Buying Their Brand
Take a look at THIS Australian toddler formula clip. Notice how they not only used a professional (one who specialises in babies and knows ALL about them, especially since she’s a mum too!) but the scene of the professional speaking gets rolled into the mother speaking, implying that the mother is smart and intelligent for doing just as the ‘expert’ would do. This is a typical and common method of marketing that works on consumers, not only using a highly regarded endorsement, but making your customer feel intelligent for making the same decision (to use their product) that an expert would.
If a consumer feels great about a perceived smart decision, they are more likely to buy. Formula manufacturers also like to make you laugh and feel feel warm and fuzzy to build a bond with you (especially while you’re perfectly hormone riddled)… which helps to detract from the fact that some of the babies in THIS clip don’t even look old enough to be toddlers.
#5: Sponsoring Professional Conferences
This is just another way that formula companies sneak into your kitchen pantry without you even realising. They will sponsor events that attract maternal and child health nurses and other maternity professionals, so that they can build relationships with them in the hope that they will in turn recommend their products.
Australian parenting ‘expert’ and IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) Pinky McKay says, “I personally wont attend any conferences sponsored by formula companies and I find it unethical that many health professionals attend without blinking an eye. A few years ago I had a formula company contact me a number of times – they wanted to sponsor me to give talks to health professionals (child health nurses). The person contacting me was very persistent and in the end I had to say, “what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” Apart from the fact that I am an IBCLC Lactation Consultant (which means I comply with a code of ethics) my personal ethics mean I simply can’t tolerate the sneaky marketing tactics that are employed by formula companies.”
Sales is ALL about relationships. The person who has the best relationships, communication skills and understanding of human behaviour will get the most sales time and time again… not necessarily the best products. At the end of the day, formula companies have targets, a board to report to and shareholders to make happy. This will come at the expense of anything else, because managers just want to see increasing figures.
#6: Offering Free Advice Lines And Services From ‘Experts’
Who would knock back the offer of FREE expert advice about pregnancy, birth or baby issues, without the hefty waiting line and fees involved with going to your own doctor?
You no longer have to feel stupid asking any little question, because formula companies are more than happy to offer complimentary over-the-phone, email and web chat to help you with any of your problems during pregnancy or parenthood. In fact their sites are becoming more designed around the whole expert offering advice thing. Again this builds trust – a relationship with you – so you begin to see them as your friend who cares about you… rather than a random cranky hospital midwife on night shift who is too flat out to answer your embarrassing question.
If you’re struggling with breastfeeding and you just want a friend, who will you turn to? Thats right, that nice place that helped you out with your problems before, and you just want to feel nice again… meet the lovely, caring team ready to help you:
Only, their business is not breastfeeding. It's formula. And selling it is how they pay those experts, the multi million dollar advertising bills and their sales team. If their staff, website and advertising campaigns promoted and supported breastfeeding, they would not make money – they'd have a non-viable business. Simple as that.
They are not breastfeeding experts. They are experts at selling formula.
#7: Training Retail Staff
When I was younger, I worked in a pharmacy. As you have probably noticed by visiting one, pharmacy staff are often young.
Sales reps visit you like crazy and love doing ‘training sessions’ which is essentially brand education and grooming (brainwashing). After a training session, you'd understand formula better, think how great it is and why their particular formula was better (due to a specific fat or other ingredient used that other brands don’t use).
Well, that was before I knew better… but what effect do you think that has on formula sales – let alone staff who think these formulas have awesome ingredients great for babies brains, growth and development?
#8: Targeting Vulnerable Parents
More recently, some formula manufacturers have begun ruthlessly playing on one of the biggest emotional strings we have as parents – our lack of sleep.
The cash registers were ringing – they created a solution! Formulas to help baby sleep longer, like Novolac’s Sweet Dreams formula: “Novalac Sweet Dreams formula provides a longer-lasting feeling of fullness in infants who wake often due to hunger. It contains slowly digestible carbohydrates and increased casein, so the stomach empties more slowly and infants feel hungry less often…”
Nice thought Novolac, only, this serves to further increase the SIDS risk that already exists with using formula. I don’t say this to scare parents using formula, but parents have a right to know how dangerous these “sleep inducing” formulas are.
Wakefulness is important for a baby’s survival – even SIDS research shows that the deeper and longer a baby sleeps, the higher the risk of SIDS. Dr Sears says this about the importance of wakefulness in babies:
“Suppose a baby slept deeply most of the night. Some basic needs would go unfulfilled. Tiny babies have tiny tummies, and mother's milk is digested very rapidly. If a baby's stimulus for hunger could not easily arouse her, this would not be good for baby's survival. If baby's nose was stuffed and she could not breathe, or was cold and needed warmth, and her sleep state was so deep that she could not communicate her needs, her survival would be jeopardised.”
How can a formula company say that they are putting the health of a baby first when they are marketing products that every sleep deprived parent would want to snaffle up if they didn’t know any better?
As much as they will tell you that ‘yes, breastfeeding is best’ (they have to) and some formula sites will have you agreeing to pop-up statements acknowledging breastfeeding as you enter their site, don’t you find it curious that they don’t have links directed to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, so women can get support from Australia’s peak breastfeeding body? Instead, formula companies have their own breastfeeding support advice and experts to take your breastfeeding questions. Why? To me, this is just like giving someone a blank cheque, and the trade-off is your baby's health.
#9: Bribing & Gifting Health Professionals
This is in fact illegal in Australia but it happens around the world. Its common in many professions including the pharmaceutical industry but most unethical of all, the infant formula industry where gifts for doctors, midwives, health nurses and others are traded for formula recommendations. The MAIF and WHO code stands against this behaviour, but formula companies push this one to its limits where they can get away with it. If not with money, then with trips, gifts, even food or air conditioning in poorer countries like the Philippines, where corruption is out of control, and only around 16% of mothers exclusively breastfeed.
This must see 30 minute Unicef documentary shows exactly how far formula companies will push the envelope when they’re given an inch. Is this (and worse) the sort of corporate behaviour we want to see on Australian shores? I believe we need to support ALL mothers regardless of how they feed their babies, but without the corporate and financial influence, which has a complete lack of empathy and an ulterior motive. We need to pump more dollars into supporting women so they can make informed decisions about feeding their babies – there is no money to be made in breastmilk (even though millions could be saved in the health system), which is why no-one promotes it.
Perhaps if they cared so much about the importance of breastfeeding, formula companies wouldn’t mind paying a breastfeeding protection levy on their profits, to be provided to the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
Please watch this, it's well worth it.
BellyBelly recommends The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts Are Bad For Business.