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The International Breastfeeding Symbol » Blog Archive » The “Just as Good” Argument Lie

The “Just as Good” Argument Lie

September 28th, 2007 by MamaBear

The smartest argument formula manufacturers can make in favor of using formula is to imply, through clever marketing tactics, that it’s “just as good” as breastfeeding. But smart does not always means honest. The implications made by formula marketing tactics don’t have to be true, and in fact, they aren’t. The important thing, though, is that consumers believe the implications, that consumers believe the lie.

Analogies are imperfect; I’ve never met one that aligned exactly with what it was trying to explain, and because of this they can be a source of bitter quibbling over the details… Despite that, I will use one to describe what I mean: Formula is to breastfeeding as Coca-Cola is to eating a freshly picked ripe organic orange. There is NO COMPARISON.

So, for a formula manufacturer to say, for example, “Brand X formula now contains DHA and ARA, just like breastmilk,” is like saying, “Coca-Cola now contains the addition of Vitamin C, just like a freshly picked ripe organic orange does.” In both cases, an unfair comparison is made by association, implying that the addition of one discrete item (or two) makes the manufactured product “enough” like the original that it’s “just as good for you (or your baby).” It’s NOT.

I’m not trying to demonize formula itself. There are many legitimate cases where formula use (as in my own personal case) is necessary. However, that necessity has been grossly distorted by formula manufacturers and the trickle-down effect their marketing practices have exerted on the medical community. As a brief example, look at the formula give-aways at hospital discharge in most Western hospitals, maternal-infant separation at birth, and other baby UNfriendly practices that pervade the medicalized birth experience. These routines and practices are no accident or mere coincidence. They are couched as “safety” concerns, but the truth is they have come about out of fear of malpractice suits and the desire to control as many variables as possible in order to avoid being sued. Formula companies LOVE this and exploit it for their own ends, reassuring the medical community that one more variable can be controlled precisely: the baby’s nourishment. Most doctors, ignorant about breastfeeding (medical school dedicates about 1.5 total hours to breastfeeding education, out of FOUR YEARS), are happy about this control, because they perceive that it reduces the risk of malpractice suits, and one hand (medical establishment) washes the other (formula companies), willingly.

My point here and now is that the aggressive marketing of formula has convinced too many people, some of them doctors, that formula is “just as good” as breast milk. It is NOT. Not by far. This nonsense needs to stop right now. It never should have started.

Unfortunately, this is one of the primary goals of formula manufacturers, and they will stop at nothing to convince the entire world that formula is “just as good” as breastfeeding, even if it means lying about it. They have lied before and gotten away with it. Rest assured, they are not deterred by ephemeral negative publicity, and they will lie again. Negative publicity to a huge multi-billion-dollar corporation like Nestle, for example, is a mere trifle, a nuisance, like a gnat flying in its face it can swat away or squash with its hand. They can always buy back the hearts and minds of the public by (grudgingly and dismissively) paying lip-service to “breast is best” while talking out of both sides of their mouth and emphasizing that “our formula is ‘like’ breast milk.” It matters not to them that that comparison is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, as long as there is money to be made.

The real truth, that the difference between formula and breast milk is worlds apart, is the reason why I am skeptical when I read about claims that breastfeeding performs “like” formula for a given data set, even if these claims are published in a prestigious medical journal. It’s not that I’m not inclined to believe it if the science is sound. It’s that I’m not certain I know enough information about what happened behind the scenes to believe what I’m reading. And since it’s happened before, my skepticism remains intact.

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9 Responses to “The “Just as Good” Argument Lie”

  1. Lesley Says:

    Have you seen what the UK has done with that language on formula? Companies will be fined if they promote their product for being “as good” as breastmilk. They are not allowed to tout it as having DHA and what-have-you. How deliciously progressive of them!

  2. Christine Says:

    In the US, you hear “breast is best” from formula companies now … but it’s the fine print. Who are we kidding? They do not want more women to breastfeed! It’s obvious with how they fight against hard core breastfeeding promotions … how they target new mothers at hospitals, etc.

  3. MamaBear Says:

    Lesley, that’s great to hear. I know Baby Milk Action is based in the UK, and I think they’ve done great work revealing formula marketing tactics there that try to side-step this “inconvenience” for them. For example, I think recently a magazine there had a celebrity bottle-feeding their daughter with a formula label on the bottle. Clearly product placement, and though it’s hard to prove if the celebrity received money for doing that, it’s definitely formula advertising… Just slicker and harder to prove than if it were on a billboard.

  4. MamaBear Says:

    Christine,

    Yes, you are correct! Formula companies “play nice” and pretend “breast is best.” It’s always grudgingly admitted, a tiny footnote that provides just enough (false) credibility as being “supporters” of mothers and babies. Very clever, because then people think to themselves “See! They can’t be that bad. They themselves say ‘breast is best!’”

    Formula companies know that if they start saying, “Formula is better than breastfeeding,” people would revolt. It would be a stupid move for them, so the smart move for a formula company is to imply it’s “just as good” (in their treatment of formula as the infant feeding norm in hospitals, a major medical authority to most people) but to simultaneously state explicitly that “breastfeeding is best.” It’s like a reverse psychology mindfuck of sorts. (Pardon my French.)

  5. Song Says:

    Yes, the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that allows makers of formula (universally acknowledged as inferior to breastmilk) to somehow pass their product off as “just as good” is amazing.

    For the latest in underhanded mindfucks, check out stealth websites like www.momsfeedingfreedom.com — funded by the formula industry, content provided by sell-outs and shills — it pretends to be all about giving mothers a place to support each other whatever their “choices,” but slips in negative framing and misinformation about breastfeeding at every opportunity.

  6. MamaBear Says:

    Song,

    Yeah, I’ve visited that site (and yeah, total mindfuck). It was Peggy O’Mara (editor of Mothering) that alerted the world about it first, in her most recent editorial: http://www.mothering.com/guest_editors/quiet_place/quiet_place.html. I’m so glad she did. However, what’s worrying me now is that just because a select few people (Mothering subscribers) know doesn’t mean the rest of the world does. We need to make sure more people are aware of this so that they don’t let the language and division-among-women-mongering of that site influence them and further divide us. I need to do more blogging. There’s so much to say about this it’s hard to know where to begin (and I’ve already got like 3-4 posts cooking)… *sigh*

  7. Cheryl Says:

    I gave birth to my fifth child 11 days ago. Just a few days after I got home from the hospital I got a package from enfamil. The package said it contained two free gifts for both the breastfeeding mom and those who had chosedn formula. The package contained 2 cans of formula and a handy “breastfeeding guide”. There are 35 pages to the “breastfeeding guide”. Out of these, there are 4 pages that have info about breastdfeeding. Then there is a page on how to start supplementing. Every other page is an advertisement for a different type of formula made by enfamil. What a joke that this is a “gift” for the breastfeeding mom! I know better than to expect more from a formula company, but I wonder how many new moms take this information on blind faith.

  8. MamaBear Says:

    Cheryl,

    Congratulations on your baby!! :D

    Yup, The Lactivist and others have written about this sneaky tactic the formula companies use. They issue “breastfeeding guides” to tired postpartum moms and then turn around and sabotage new mothers with the illusion that supplementing will make things easier. *eyeroll*

    Good thing you’re too smart for them!

  9. Artemnesia Says:

    I’ve always wondered if they put the “breast is best” rhetoric all over the place to protect themselves from future class-action lawsuits. They know they slogan doesn’t really work anyway.

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