On mommy wars, the WHO code, and Similac: what’s so bad about a heartwarming ad?

**Cradled in Joy birth services supports every family in their feeding goals, whether you breast or bottle feed, and no matter how long you choose to do so. This post is a critique of breastmilk substitute marketing, NOT the mothers who use breastmilk substitutes.***

Recently, a certain formula ad has been gracing our news feeds. In it, a variety of parents meet up at a park, judging each other about their parenting choices. (Or rather, attachment parenting and breastfeeding moms judge everyone else.) In the end, they all realize that they are parents first, and they are all doing the best they can. Heartwarming, right?

Well, the ad was created and produced by Similac, a formula manufacturer. And while I would love to end the mommy wars, this ad is designed to sell formula, not end parent-to-parent judgment.

Before you read any further, I suggest you take a peek at this excellent summary, which talks about the manipulative nature of formula marketing, and the many ways in which formula companies try to subvert the law. Also check out this article, which talks about how they risk public health in order to get their products in the hands of vulnerable young mothers and turn a profit.

Okay, so what is so bad about this ad?

1: It violates the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

What is this? It is a code to which all first world countries are signatories, except the United States (where formula lobbying bought the votes of Congress). In response to a growing public health crisis, WHO noticed that infant nutrition was a large part of the reason we are seeing an increase in poor nutrition, which includes the obesity epidemic in the United States. The code encompasses the following rules (which are the law in all other 1st world countries, and many 3rd world countries as well):

  1. No advertising of breast milk substitutes to families. (Read: Why formula advertising is different from other types of advertising, making it predatory.)
  2. No free samples or supplies in the health care system.
  3. No promotion of products through health care facilities, including no free or low-cost formula.
  4. No contact between marketing personnel and mothers.
  5. No gifts or personal samples to health workers.
  6. No words or pictures idealizing artificial feeding, including pictures of infants, on the labels or the product.
  7. Information to health workers should be scientific and factual only.
  8. All information on artificial feeding, including labels, should explain the benefits of breastfeeding and the costs and hazards associated with artificial feeding.
  9. Unsuitable products should not be promoted for babies.
  10. All products should be of high quality and take account of the climate and storage conditions of the country where they are used.

(Summary taken from the Best for Babes Foundation website).

2: They made it a viral campaign, to purposely get around international law, and you are playing into their hands.

Social media has changed marketing. If my friend in Norway sees this ad and posts it on her Facebook page, they haven’t violated the law, have they? After all, they made this ad in an American market; they certainly can’t be held responsible if they happen to hit their desired demographic in a no-marketing zone, can they? This ad was cleverly designed with a “we’re all in this together” mentality to get all moms to share it and rocket Similac to the top of everyone’s mind as a company that cares.

3: It’s not even original–the original “Stop the Mommy Wars” campaign should get the real credit.

This advertising campaign blatantly rips off the hard work of the Connecticut Working Moms, who started a Stop the Mommy Wars Campaign nearly two years ago. These women are actually taking part in this project because they care. Similac made the ad because breastfeeding rates worldwide are higher than they have been in years, and they don’t want to lose their profit margin. Interestingly, this ad campaign is titled, “The Sisterhood of Motherhood,” which echoes the motto of the Connecticut Working Moms, “Support, Strength, Sisterhood.”

4: It subtly reinforces old formula marketing tactics and shames the breast.

That’s right; in an ad about everyone treating each other equally, Similac has very thoughtfully portrayed formula moms and breastfeeding moms in a way that makes formula come out on top.

Formula companies STARTED the mommy wars with “Breast is best.” The breastfeeding moms in the video say it; how rude, right? Funny, considering the fact that formula companies invented and love the phrase “breast is best.” Here’s how it goes: breast is best–the gold standard if you will, but if it doesn’t work out, formula is okay too. The problem is that breastfeeding isn’t just best; it’s the biological norm. If you shift your outlook to “breast is natural and normal,” then everything else is a substitute. In other countries, formula is called “breastmilk substitute,” because it is a replacement, not an equal.

AND if breastfeeders happen to pick up on the “breast is best, formula is poison” marketing, it STILL works out in Similac’s favor. How is that? Well, as all your nursing mom friends judge you for not making enough milk, formula companies are telling you that you are a “strong mom” and that you are still feeding your baby and, after all, isn’t it just a “sisterhood of motherhood?” Very subtly, Similac appears to be the good guy when, in fact, they started this crap in the first place.

Breastfeeding is still a secret. When I saw the formula moms squirting milk out of bottles, I thought “oh boy! we are finally going to see a breast in a national ad, doing what breasts are made to do!” Nope. In fact, not only do we NOT see the equivalent (a breast squirting out milk), we in fact see no breasts at all. Before you think Similac is being discreet to avoid offending anyone, think about it. As long as the breast is taboo and must be covered, the breast (and breastfeeding) are shameful. Nursing in public is one of the biggest “Booby Traps” for mothers who simply want to get out of the house–either they have to give it up, or try to convince a fidgety infant to cooperate with eating in the dark. It certainly works in Similac’s favor if the only way you can breastfeed is a way that is nearly impossible for any mom.

The breastfeeding moms aren’t put together. This is an extremely subtle, but very important, part of the ad. The bottle-feeding moms are dressed in three-piece outfits with purses, jewelry, and accessories. The breastfeeding moms aren’t styled at all. In fact, they have simple and slightly frizzy hairdos with basic tops and jeans. The subtle message is that breastfeeding is time consuming, and you will look like a stress-free mom when you use formula. In fact, after the initial learning period, this is quite the opposite. Yet, you see a mom fumbling to get her baby to the breast in this ad. Hmmm.

5: Formula and breastfeeding are not equal.

Now, before you get angry, let me explain: formula is the next best thing to breastmilk, and the best substitution when mom can’t breastfeed and doesn’t have access to pumped or donor milk.  But it’s not even close to an equal parenting choice. I don’t know many moms in my circle who haven’t agonized over having to supplement. I don’t think moms should have to agonize, but I also don’t think that formula should be equated as an equal choice, when every medical professional out there clearly points to breastfeeding as being the standard to which formula should aspire.

I’m talking about the subtle way that Similac has made the bottle and breast debate a matter of equal choice in parenthood. Formula companies have long advertised their products as “closer than ever to breastmilk,” but they are still a far cry from the real thing, which is why we need to be alert as consumers to advertising that does anything to equate the two. By way of illustration, here is a great graphic: Ingredients in Breastmilk and Formula. Remember, if you bottle feed a breastmilk substitute to your baby, you are making a sound and responsible choice to give your baby nutrition to grow and thrive. That doesn’t mean formula companies should be allowed to equate it with the real thing. (See the above reference to why formula marketing is predatory.)

6. It’s made by a corporate interest.

I don’t always distrust The Man, but with breastfeeding rates on the rise, you better believe I look at anything sponsored by a formula company with a raised eyebrow. As more and more mothers get assistance from Baby-Friendly Hospitals, Lactation Consultants, and peer support groups like Breastfeeding USA and La Leche League, it’s hurting the company profits. And Similac surely wants all that’s left of the dwindling milk substitute market.

I love the overall message that mothers need to end the mommy wars, but if you watch the ad closely, it is still selling you formula and the idea that the breastfeeding is hard and the bottle is an equal and convenient substitute, which only makes it easier for formula companies to swoop in when you are having a bad day nursing. Yes, let’s all support one another, no matter how we feed our babies, but let’s not diminish the importance of helping mothers reach their breastfeeding goals in the first place!

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