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.