Breastfeeding Ad Campaign Hoopla

September 1st, 2007 by MamaBear

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, letting my thoughts percolate through my mind. Recently it has come to light, through a Washington Post report, that certain breastfeeding promotion ads in 2004 were toned down because of pressure from The International Formula Council (representing, as of April 2004: Ross; Mead Johnson; Nestle USA Solus Products; PBM Products, LLC; and Wyeth Nutrition).

The ads which were toned down depicted a rubber nipple placed on an asthma inhaler or an insulin bottle, with a syringe in the background. The images, in my opinion, are striking and definitely attention-getting. Some might even call them inflammatory.

When I first read about this on a few blogs, I was very upset about the original ads getting pulled because of pressure from the IFC. Clearly the incentive on the part of the formula companies is to make money, and a negative ad campaign like that one would make formula a difficult sell to any mother who thinks of breastfeeding as a mere “lifestyle choice.” But what bothered me the more I thought about it is that the inflammatory ads would disenfranchise a person like me, too, who does not bottle-feed by choice (my baby refuses to breastfeed). As it is, even with a mostly anti-breastfeeding culture, I find myself in the position of having to explain to perfect strangers why it is I’m feeding my baby with a bottle (because they ask me), or getting impolite stares when I pull out a bottle to feed my baby. I pump every day, eight times a day, for twenty minutes, using a double electric hospital grade breast pump (actually, two different ones), but I still manage to only produce about 16 ounces for any given 24-hour period. This means I must supplement with something else, some other, lesser milk, so that my child won’t starve. For various reasons, I’ve chosen this supplement to be formula. Yes, I have received donor breastmilk from extremely kind-hearted donors, but it takes a lot of milk to feed a baby, and now that she’s a year old, my donors have understandably “hung up the horns,” a euphemism that means they’ve stopped pumping for my baby. So I am left with the only viable option: supplement with another mammal’s milk.

I am not under any delusions that the formula companies make their formula better or “closer to mother’s milk” because they care about my baby. I know they are watching their bottom line, and any new marketing strategy, including improving the quality of their artificial baby milk so that it contains more components found in breastmilk, will improve their chances of making a sale. I know this, and as a consumer, I don’t buy formula because I want to help the formula companies succeed with their business. I do it because I need to feed my baby something that will sustain her, since the quantity of breastmilk I produce isn’t sufficient to meet her needs (notice that I said “quantity” and not “quality.” The quality of my milk is far superior to any formula or other mammals’ milk for my baby; I just don’t make enough of it).

So, within this context, here’s my take on the ad campaign bruhaha: I agree that the ad campaign which featured a rubber nipple on an asthma inhaler and insulin bottle is inflammatory and, because of its negative nature, would not be effective at convincing women to breastfeed. It would succeed in shaming women who aren’t successful at breastfeeding, and that would turn a large percentage of women against breastfeeding activists, which would in turn, slow or stop all progress toward getting breastfeeding recognized as a cultural norm.

I think the alternative, softened, ad campaign is also not effective at getting women to breastfeed, though.

Furthermore, I think trying to convince women to breastfeed using ad campaigns is like changing a tire on a car because the engine overheated and burned out. I think the problem lies much deeper than merely women “choosing” not to breastfeed, and I don’t think individual women should take the fall (in the form of criticism for their feeding “choices”) for a societal and poorly incentivized medical model problem.

The real problem? It’s very simple: doctors and nurses don’t have the right incentives in place to encourage women to breastfeed. Our United States “health care” system (and quite possibly, other health care systems around the world, with completely different medical models), is not about health. It’s about making money. Unfortunately, because most hospitals in this country and their affiliates (like pharmaceutical companies, which make and sell drugs) are for-profit entities, and because we as a society tolerate that in the spirit of democracy (which it really isn’t) and capitalism (which is definitely is), corporations that benefit from this broken system buy off a lot of politicians that could enact real social change but who choose not to because enacting real social change to benefit the majority of the population is not lucrative enough. Not as lucrative as, say, receiving a check from the IFC. Or, if need be, a threat, overt or implied.

This is what makes Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recent decision to make hospitals more breastfeeding-friendly in New York City so incredibly revolutionary. It seems like such a small thing, especially with the negative way the media handled it, but it’s not. It’s HUGE. For a politician to stand up to such a powerful lobby like the IFC and say, “Nah, I’m not interested in your money or your threats. I’m going to enact this breastfeeding-friendly policy anyway, regardless of your negative media publicity because it’s the right thing to do,” speaks volumes about the sort of person Mike Bloomberg is. This is the sort of legislation that needs to take place in cities all over this country if our culture is to ever going to accept breastfeeding as the norm. An ad campaign is a nice idea, but it will not have the impact that enacting breastfeeding-friendly hospital policies will.

Now the only problem is figuring out how to do that in places that don’t have Mike Bloomberg for a leader.

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12 Responses to “Breastfeeding Ad Campaign Hoopla”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I think it depends on how you look at advertising, which is what the breastfeeding promotion ads and other Ad Council campaigns are - advertising designed to draw attention to a particular issue. The original ads were much more striking, and more effective at drawing the viewer into the content. The dandelion ad of the revised set? Not so much. That image doesn’t entice me to read the print and find out what it’s about - it could just as easily be an ad for an anti-allergy medication. From the standpoint of mere attention-grabbing, which is the first goal of any advertising materials, I think the original set was better.
    I do understand the point about guilt. The ads are intended to target behavior. It’s very difficult to target behavior without generating some guilt or ill-will in those who do not or cannot conform to that behavior - anti-smoking ads, anti-drug ads, prevent forest fires, etc. - they all have the same goal of changing behavior, and as a consequence can generate guilt in those who don’t buy into the message, or can’t change their behavior (such as if there is a medical reason breastfeeding can’t be done).
    The article seemed to indicate that the watered down campaign was not very effective in changing behavior. Would the more inflammatory ad have been more successful? We can’t know. I suspect it would have generated more discussion about breastfeeding, although you’re right that it might have had a more polarizing effect.
    One thing to note is that you (and I) are coming at this from an educated stance about breastfeeding. I think there are still plenty of women who have an “eh, whatever” attitude about it or are less informed about the benefits than you might think. I was reading a discussion board yesterday where someone tried to assert that babies get *no* antibodies from breastmilk. ?!? Would the original ads have been more effective for that group?
    Sorry for the long comment!
    PS-People who stare rudely when they see a bottle are idiots. You could be, say, a working mom who pumped it during the day. Bottle doesn’t always equal formula. Which you might argue could be a negative effect of that original ad set - reinforcing the idea that everything in a bottle is formula.

  2. Rachel Says:

    PS#2 - I do think incentives are an important aspect. There is a bill right now to give companies tax deduction is they provide pumping space at the workplace. It’s a start if it passes, but my very large workplace with multiple buildings, there is one lactation room, and consequently many women can’t make it there in their alloted break time. Should that count for a deduction, if many employees can’t use what’s there? I don’t know.

  3. MamaBear Says:

    You bring up some very good points… Particularly that last one about if the workplace has a room dedicated to lactation, even if it’s not practical to use for a significant percentage of the lactating employees, should that count as a deduction? Hm… It seems like one lactating room and a policy that offers the right incentives is definitely better than nothing, yet may not sufficient, because employers will always want to “get by” with as little as they can and still “qualify” for their deduction. The underlying problem may still be ignored, unfortunately… Still, better to have some protection than none.

  4. MamaBear Says:

    Regarding the ad campaign itself and your point about drawing people in… Perhaps a different ad campaign altogether would work best: one which places the blame not on the woman for bottle-feeding, but which instead places it on the hospitals for routinely separating babies from their mothers… And the negative effect that has on breastfeeding, and subsequently maternal and infant health. That would be more true to life, as well.

    How to do that succinctly? I don’t know — I’m not a marketing person! :)

  5. Melissa Says:

    I totally agree with you that the blame of the poor BF statistics in the U.S. can’t be put completely on mothers. You are right that the government, the health care industry, and society at large create the problem and we are left to deal with it however we can. I really feel for moms who really want to BF but don’t have support at home or work.

    I don’t think those inflammatory ads would change people’s minds. I don’t respond well to threats and scare tactics and I doubt others do either. There have been some good ads from the Virginia Dept. of Health on TV lately that I think are excellent at presenting great reasons to BF without being inflammatory or offending anyone. I wish the BF/FF discussion could take place without so many hurt feelings.

  6. Moms Speak Up » Blog Archive » ‘Softening A Message’ Says:

    […] found this related post from theĀ  International Breastfeeding Symbol Blog Posted in WTF?, Government by Kris Underwood on […]

  7. linzy Says:

    Great article! One problem I’m having a hard time reconciling with myself when I promote breastfeeding is the perception of other lactivists. So many people have such a negative opinion of lactivists, in general, and I really try hard to set myself apart and use a gentle approach so that I don’t push people further from the cause.

    I think that these ads would have pushed people away from the cause, which would not have helped anyone. Even so, I’m sorry to know that the politicians were bought. Dirty, dirty money at the expense of the health of lots of citizens who cannot fight for themselves and need someone to fight for them.

  8. Jennifer James Says:

    Thanks for stopping by and adding a comment on my blog about this issue. The ads, for me, were a bit much, but so is an ad I keep seeing with a woman with a huge hole in her neck because she smoked for 20 + years. To say the least, the ad made its point. The breastfeeding ads, though inflammatory, probably would have worked.

    My primary concern is that the IFC came in with their clout and bullied a government department. I know; it happens all the time. It just smells. ‘m glad there is going to be a federal investigation over this and I am glad the Washington Post reporters smelled a rat and went digging.

    Most importantly for me is that now I know from the IFC’s own lips that one of their target demographics is poor mothers on WIC. They simply do not want to lose the lucrative dollars they have coming from the WIC program.

    In 2004, WIC spent 3,561,200,000 on food for 8,000,000 participants. They received 1.5 billion in rebates mostly from the formula companies, but also some of that money came from purchase of juice and infant cereal. In order to help ban these ads they essentially pitted the USDA against the department of Health and Human Services because they already have the USDA by the balls.

  9. Katilee Says:

    You talked about getting glares while bottle feeding in public and feeling like you have to explain why you are using the bottle. Perhaps, if formula and breastfeeding weren’t merely ‘lifestyle’ choices in our society you wouldn’t get those glare. In other words, if women only had the option to get formula for their children by a doctors prescription (in a situation like yours) then people would understand that mothers that are bottle feeding TRULY have no other ‘choice.’ Again, I think it goes back to re-educating doctors, nurses and the medical community!

  10. amanda Says:

    I am in my 16th month of breastfeeding my second daughter, I breastfed my first for 18 months. I am married to an advertising agency owner. I see both sides of this issue. The lactation consultant at the hospital made me very nervous and I felt more inept than necessary due to her adamance. Luckily I had already set my heart on breastfeeding, so her bruque manner didn’t deter me.
    Later I received extreme pressure from the nurses at the first pediatric practice that I went to to stop breastfeeding and begin formula. They told me it was improbable that a woman could, and reckless if I tried, to provide all my daughter(s) needed through the breast.
    I have dealt with hateful stares for nursing in public (always shielding my breast and moving as far to the corners as I could).
    I think one thing that cannot be argued are the pronounced health benefits. While incredibly shocking, the ad campaign would have had impact if for nothing more than to educate people on the potential benefits. Sometimes we must first shock to gain attention. I agree, it probably would not have convinced legions of women to nurse, but perhaps the input they would have gotten from society and others as they formed their decisions, would have included more positive encouragament.

  11. MamaBear Says:


    I certainly agree that re-educating the medical community (or should I say, educating, period?) is definitely in order.

    As for making formula only by prescription… You know, in my heart, I agree with that sentiment, but as a person who has to buy formula and who has struggled so much already with feeding my baby, I really wouldn’t want another obstacle in my way… I also wouldn’t want that for any other mother in a similar situation. Formula has its place, and I do trust that women are smart enough to choose when to use it appropriately. The problem is not individual women making the choice to formula feed. The real problem is that far too often, women are practically railroaded into “choosing” formula. Too many people are misinformed about breastfeeding and there are powerful forces keeping the misinformation alive. The answer is to educate, educate, educate… And then educate some more.

    I think taking unsolicited formula samples out of doctors’ offices and hospitals is definitely a step in the right direction, though. But making formula a prescription would (a) make things harder for mothers who need it and (b) only serve to make doctors richer by encouraging women to “make your formula prescription appointment and keep it.” See what I mean? The formula lobby would find a way around this loophole and women would be the ones paying in the end.

  12. MamaBear Says:

    I just want to publicly state, today, on November 8, 2007, that it has finally sunk in my head how egregious the pulling of this ad has been to the promotion of breastfeeding. I know I have my own personal concerns regarding guilt and grieving the loss of a breastfeeding relationship with my child, but that really has very little to do with these ad campaigns.

    Rachel and everyone else: I was mistaken and short-sighted in my opinion that the pulling of the ad campaign was a good thing for moms like me. I am a wiser person now than I was when I wrote this post (and, I’d like to believe, more level-headed). I realize now that pulling the ad is and was a greed-motivated act that is to the detriment of all mothers and babies everywhere. I think that since there is so much ignorance and misinformation about breastfeeding out there, that an ad campaign would be effective at informing the majority of those who do not know these facts in a quick and easy way. Anyone who already knows them (like me) shouldn’t be too surprised or bothered (even if it results in a small backlash)…

    Since the real problem is ignorance and since the ignorance is so widespread (infecting hospital administrators and other powerful people who are in charge of making decisions that can make or break breastfeeding success in the aggregate), the original ad campaign should be allowed to run unaltered. Politics does not trump biological necessity.

    I commend the Washington Post for such super-sleuthing and for having the balls to publish what they did. Bravo, Washington Post!

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