On Mothers, Marketing, Motives and Messaging: An essay on infant feeding

Author’s note: This post was originally published on my personal facebook wall on March 13h, 2012.  I am sharing it at the request of several people who are interested in pursuing discussions on the business perspective of the infant feeding including the marketing of formula and breastfeeding advocacy.  It has been (heavily) edited to protect some personal and private information, as well as to correct some spelling/grammar mistakes and streamline the content as much as possible. 

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WARNING: THIS POST IS INCREDIBLY LONG (EVEN BY MY STANDARDS) AND MAY REQUIRE YOU TO POUR YOURSELF AN EXTRA GLASS OF WINE (OR SIX) BEFORE READING…

I’ve got a few disclaimers to make before I post anything. This is a hot button topic, and my choices on breastfeeding are not up for debate. Neither are anyone else’s. I will be heavily moderating this post and will delete any comment that I find offensive or unnecessarily antagonistic, cause I’m a dictator like that.

1) I am still breastfeeding my 21-month-old son.  This was not my plan, nor was it my desire, but it is my reality.  We have been working on weaning S, slowly and respectfully of his needs and ability to understand. It has already been a six-month process, and I expect it to take until at least his second birthday.   He nurses rarely now, and mostly for comfort.   S has never had any formula, and he did not eat solids until he was eight months. This was a decision my husband and I reached based after reading extensive research on all sides of the coin, and we made the decisions that works for us as parents.

2) I am a formula-fed child.  I am surrounded by formula-fed children, and see no evidence of poor parenting in them.  That said, I do not believe that formula is the equivalent to breast milk- but I have rarely (if ever) heard anyone make that statement.

3) I genuinely feel awful for women who wanted to breastfeed but didn’t because of whatever reason.  I also feel awful for women who struggled with breastfeeding and were so worried about the social implications of supplementing that they did not do it. I am one of those women.  I do believe that breastfeeding my baby enhanced our bond. I do also believe that I allowed myself to become pressured into decisions that may not always have been in the interest of my best physical health, or the best physical and emotional health of my family.

4) I am not a “breastfeeding nazi”. I am not an activist, a lactivist, an intactivist, a “hippy”, a “crunchy mom” or any other label you want to assign me. I am simply a mom, and the feeding of my child is the only interest I have in the breastfeeding movement.  I have no financial benefit from my opinions or views on breastfeeding, formula, or breastfeeding supplementation and related products. 

5) I am also business-owner and a professional business consultant.  I do agree that the decision of how to feed your child is a personal one. It is your child, your body and your choice.  BUT I also believe that there is a greater discussion that needs to be had on the role of government, organizations, the media and marketing.  Like any other social phenomenon, our actions impact the world around us. We should not make our decisions based on this fact- but we should recognize this fact nonetheless.

Breastfeeding, for most women, is a “heart” issue.  I would like to compel us to have a “brain” discussion on this topic. I think that, as we move more and more towards social marketing, the discussions revolving around corporate ethics become all the more important.

Let me start by saying: I do not believe that corporations have ethics. Corporations are not people. Despite being run by people, they do not have “feelings” or an internal conscience. In fact, I believe that many corporations layer their internal management so heavily that it squishes out any individual sense of ethics, because no one person is effectually in charge of seeing the entire big picture.

I also do not believe that corporations should be bound by social ethics. I believe that corporations have one basic reason for existence: to make money for their shareholders.  That is their role; that is what they do.  If they also happen to do good in the world, then wonderful. But doing ‘good’ is not their first and foremost responsibility, nor should it be.  Businesses need to make money, or else they cease to exist.

There are many times when making money and doing good can actually be compatible, either because doing good reduces their costs (think reducing the amount of shopping bags used by making customers pay for them), by increasing their public favour/visibility and thereby increasing their direct or indirect sales (as is the case with the “healthy fast food” movement).  It is extraordinarily rare for a business to take a financial hit, either in public opinion or in actual sales, in favour of doing the “right” thing unless they are mandated to do so by the law or some other regulating authority.

Now, when I say that corporations should not be bound by ethics, let me be clear: I do not believe that corporations should use a moral compass to make their decisions. This does not mean that I believe in an entirely free market.  Rather, I believe that governments, regulating bodies and- ultimately- the public must be the forces that regulate the behaviours of corporations.  These should represent the mores of the greater portion of society, thereby dictating the terms by which a business will survive or fail.

Now, as we know, there is a significant issue with public information right now. Be it from GMO-pushing corporations, or the producers of breastmilk substitutes, there is an unequivocal disparity between the truth and public perception. People jump onto a bandwagon because they are not thinking critically about the marketing and media that surround them.    What we are left with is a huge crisis between “fakes and facts”, not only in the infant feeding industry but in business as a whole.

That being said, it is not and will never be up to businesses to make sure that you have your facts straight.  They present information in order to persuade you to purchase from them, and it is up to you to discern what is relevant, superfluous, or misleading.  We, the consumers, must take accountability for our consumption.  The exceptions to this rule are clear: businesses are not allowed to break the law and if they do, they must suffer the legal consequences.

So if you are asking if the “Stop Kony 2012″ social media campaign violated my personal ethical and moral standards, my answer would be yes (for more on that, read this post, at http://www.kikkiplanet.com that explains it much better than I ever could).  If you asked me if “Stop Kony” should be allowed to use the campaign video, my answer would be yes, as long as they stay within the parameters of the law. If you also asked me what you should do about stopping “Stop Kony”, I would respond: do you homework, don’t believe everything you read, and don’t buy products you don’t believe in. If you feel that their actions should be be banned, advocate to have the laws tightened.  And, if you feel comfortable with sharing your opinion to help others learn more, then do so- but be accurate, be kind, and be prepared for the fall out.  

Should you replace the word “Kony” with the words “Formula Companies”, my answers would be the same.

I loved how the kikkiplanet.com blog post handled the Kony issue.  It presented the facts (with an abundance of references), highlighted an opinion and called on others to learn more and make up their own minds. This is persuasive arguing at its very finest.  If the facts are on your side, you can make a strong case.  Now, I admit that with “Stop Kony”- despite it being a huge business with a ton of money- doesn’t come close to the funding that formula companies have. The larger the company, the harder it is to make a convincing case…and yet, it happens all the time.  We are watching as huge businesses are forced to make significant changes to their products and their marketing in the face of social realities.  One need only consider how far McDonald’s has come (arguably not far enough, but still) in offering apples to children instead of French fries. And still, parents choose French fries. It’s unhealthy, empty-calorie food that does nothing but bad…and they know it. But still they buy it. This is not because they aren’t informed. It is because they are making the choice of comfort, convenience, taste, etc. over the choice for health. We all make these choices regularly, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Now, every so often a business lies. A lot. And this needs intervention.  Take for example the cigarette companies.  Do you think they advertise how unhealthy their product is because they care about our health? Nope- they lost a major court case, and now are legally obligated to. Our legal system has declared that they must suffer this price for the damages they cause to our overall health.  And, though the numbers are declining steadily, people still smoke.  They know it’s not healthy.  They don’t care, or at least they are unwilling to take on the change required to stop. And this is ultimately their right.

Formula, as a product, is not as ideal for babies and mothers as is the natural feeding process involved in breastfeeding. This much has been scientifically established. And yet women still use formula, for a variety of reasons.  Are there other options? Let me state this clearly: At this time, the Government of Canada does NOT endorse any other options of feeding your newborn. Breastmilk and Formula are the two that society and our government have deemed acceptable and healthy.  In the case of milk sharing, Health Canada still recommends only using milk from legally regulated milk banks, which are few and far between.  Should this be the case? In my opinion, no. I believe that milk sharing and homemade formulas can and should become equally accessible substitutes given the time and resources.  But until this is the case, you have two options if you are following the current guidelines, which most parents do.

Now, let’s look at some hard business realities. Products succeed because they are desired by the people. Formula was invented to respond to a very real, very important need; children were dying as a result of poor nutrition and poisoning from early breastmilk substitutes such as “dry nursing” and evaporated milk. Wet nursing was not readily available to all mothers, and in many cases was very expensive. As women began to work outside of the home, and our society moved from agrarian to industrial, formula became a proverbial beckon in a world that had traditionally imprisoned women in the home.  Like contraception, it provided women an alternative to the lives that they had been living.  This is why the “choice” argument is so powerful.  Whether we like it or not, formula historically provided a “choice” where options were once incredibly limited. Sadly, this also turned into a “breastfeeding is bad and/or inferior” scenario, where women were actively encouraged by medical professionals to choose formula from birth.

The second reality is that some women can not breastfeed for physical reasons. Others can’t for psychological reasons. Others don’t because they simply don’t want to. And, legally speaking, all of those are equally valid reasons not to breastfeed your child. While I do understand the implications, both economic and social, for why we want to encourage breastfeeding, the fact of the matter is that women do not have to breastfeed. Choosing formula is their right, and an overwhelmingly large proportion of mothers choose to exercise this right at some point during their child’s life.

Formula manufacturers produce products that women want to buy.  They market these products in order to encourage women to buy their specific brand as opposed to their competitor’s. That is the primary purpose of marketing.

I think that the major issue with marketing, in this context and in all contexts, is that it has become so pervasive that people no longer evaluate the information that they are being presented. They no longer ask themselves: what are the motives behind what I am being presented? Who is presenting the information? What is the subtext and what is not being said?

We have forgotten that we, the consumers, are ultimately accountable for our decision making and that we have a responsibility to carefully evaluate what we are being presented with.  Far too many people rely on what is being marketed to them, without investigating further on their own.

This is a double-edged sword, particularly in the infant feeding industry as there are motives on either side.  Just as the the formula manufacturers stand to gain from selling their products, many companies and individuals stand to gain financially from increasing the breastfeeding success rates.  Both are marketing to mothers. Both have self-interest. And both employ marketing tactics, highlighting only the points that are relevant to these interests.

This is not to say that all breastfeeding advocates stand to gain, or that their information is incorrect.  But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that there is not money to be made on both sides.

Now, not all advocates are self-interested. Not all of us stand to gain.  But we must navigate very carefully the economically and politically charged waters created by the business of infant feeding in general.

When it comes to breastfeeding advocacy, I’m not going to comment much on approach. Frankly there are as many approaches as there are people. I will say that groups that appear extremist seldom accomplish much beyond polarizing the already divided public and swaying public opinion away from their original goals. I think the breastfeeding “movement” falls victim to this, getting labeled by the crazy behaviours of a smaller subsection of our population.  This makes us feel sad and defeated, and we react from that emotional place as opposed to regrouping and considering more carefully our efforts.

Likewise, formula-feeding advocates who find themselves on the other side of the debate, feel persecuted by the more extremist movement and, in an effort to self-protect and to defend themselves, respond from an emotionally charged place to advocacy efforts that they perceive as being an attack on their choices.

For this reason, organizations like the World Health Organization draft codes which they hope that the world will comply to.  But unless those codes are unheld by the governing parties at home, why would a business actively do something that will cause it to lose money? Again, a corporation’s primary objective is to generate money, not to create a better world. Is this what we wish businesses would do? I’m not sure that’s even a relevant question. It is what they do.

As it stands, the WHO recommendations on infant feeding are voluntary, and abiding them is not a requirement of any Canadian business.

Should it be? THAT is the relevant question and where we need to start focusing our attention.

Some breastfeeding businesses have started out as WHO code compliant and found it impossible to live up to the standards.  They give up, and join the pack.  The standards, as they stand are simply not possible to maintain given our current economic and political climate.  The only way for them to become possible would be to have government intervention either through law (as was the case with the cigarette companies) or through subsidized advocacy and education programs (as was the case with the health movement).

So where does that leave the breastfeeding movement, which is so committed to promoting breastfeeding rights, to holding formula manufacturers accountable for their product quality, and to furthering honesty and education about healthy infant feeding?

Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.  This is most true of the breastfeeding debate, which has been circling the same basic discussions for three decades. Everywhere you look, you inadvertently stumble onto some form of the “breast vs. bottle” fight, and every time you do it ends the same way: no one’s opinion is changed, and everyone is mad.

In my honest opinion, the social advocacy efforts have not only not moved us forward; they have propelled us backwards. That is not to say that there hasn’t been movement towards more socialized and accepted breastfeeding norms- we already know that there has been a significant increase in both the amount of women who start breastfeeding and those that breastfeeding exclusively until the Canadian-recommended age of six months.  But, I would argue that these trends do not reflect the growing advocacy movement, but rather the increased knowledge that we are gaining from the research communities about breastmilk, breastfeeding and early childhood (particularly in terms of neurological development).

When it comes to breastfeeding advocacy, our “public relations image” needs some serious work.

Ultimately, the flaw of almost every advocacy campaign lies in poor messaging and incorrectly targeted audiences.  At this time, the breastfeeding advocacy movement has focused its attention on educating the public about the flaws of formula and the inherent corruption within the formula manufacturing industry in hopes that this will deter buyers.  While this isn’t wrong, it is problematic.

Firstly, many of the more vocal advocates are self-researched and self-appointed which lead to them not being perceived as authority figures, and therefor diminishing their advocate credibility.  It’s not that their information is wrong, it’s that it is information being shared by second or third hand parties, many of whom are limited in their knowledge, experience, credentials and training. Whether it is fair or not, we live in a world where formal education and formal credentials matter.

The most influential voices in the breastfeeding movements are professionals in the field: doctors, nurses, certified Lactation Consultants, etc. However, they are not the ones making the most “noise”, particularly online. Unfortunately, the most visible are the extremist fringe groups who engage in tactics that taint the entire message. These extremist are almost always self-proclaimed experts, many having their own agendas to forward as well as potential financial gain. These “experts” are every bit as dangerous to new and vulnerable mothers as any strategically marketed formula campaign could ever be.

Just as there can be a problem with the messenger, there is a problem with the mediums and audience being chosen. In business, as quoted by great Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”.

In using social media sites, like blogs, Twitter or Facebook, the audience being targeted is generally one that has drawn itself to the topic. They are choosing to read on parenting topics because they are very likely already parents. As such, the odds are strong that they have already decided where they stand on the infant feeding issue.

While, trying to convert a mom who formula fed her children twenty years ago is possible, ultimately it shouldn’t be the primary target as she is unlikely to be formula feeding in the future.  Quite frankly, the vast majority of women are formula-feeding by six-weeks into their parenting journey, thereby making existing mother’s the wrong targets all together.

So who is the ideal audience? Unquestionably the mother-to-be (not necessarily just the “pregnant” but she who may one day choose to become so) and those she interacts with.

We need to think much bigger than reaching the mother beside us.  We need to start thinking about reaching the mother who has yet to reach puberty.  And yes, a big part of this lies in normalizing the act of breastfeeding itself. However, until we can get our own government policies caught up, we will have a very hard time convincing society as a whole.

What we need are our professionals, be they doctors, nurses, IBCLCs, or researchers, engaging in dialogue and actively working to ensure that the most accurate and up to date information is providing the framework for our social and health policies.  Only through these concerted efforts will we be able to actually and tangibly make changes to our current practices.

The answer here must lie in focusing our efforts towards our elected officials and advocacy groups, to empower them to orchestrate the kind of large scale education campaigns required to make immense social change happen quickly.

These are also the same people who are empowered to create the laws and regulations that would control the marketing tactics of infant feeding businesses, thereby ensuring that the public is receiving fair, accurate and up-to-date information about breastfeeding, formula and other forms of supplementations.

Increased public awareness and marketing restrictions on manufacturers.

Two birds. One stone.

So is there still a place for smaller scale advocacy? Of course there is, but it must be complimented by a more global, high-level approach.

We must be aware of the potential negative impact extremism can have on our movement. We must add to our credibility  by sharing medical and scientific (re: first-hand peer reviewed and reliable sources) for information and by encouraging active discussion of the facts, not of people and their decisions.

We must encourage those around us who do choose to breastfeed, and show love, compassion and understanding to mothers and women everywhere regardless of their feeding choices.

We must remember that the right to choose what happens to our bodies is one of the most valuable gifts we can pass on to our children.

We must continue to proudly live our values and our choices, and approach others who have different values with kindness and empathy.

In the words of Ghandi, we must “be the change we want to see in the world”.

Sometimes, simply being kind to someone who is in pain is the most courageous thing you can do.

Regardless, it almost invariably gets better results.

For more on this topic, check out these two blogs by Natasha at Natural Urban Mamas:

Not evil, just marketing 101

Passion and Compassion 

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6 Responses to On Mothers, Marketing, Motives and Messaging: An essay on infant feeding

  1. magzd says:

    YES, YES, YES!!

    Zita, I am so glad that there is not a drop of wine in the house so that I could read this with rapt attention. That I had but an ounce of your talent for words, I would be blessed beyond measure!!

    There is so much here that I agree with whole-heartedly that I could just scream out in relief!! There is NO point in berating the mothers who have already chosen – I said it before and I’ll say it again: learn from the past, plan for the future, but ABOVE ALL, accept the present.

    And “fakes vs facts” may just be my most-favourite quip in the entire world. Just sayin’…

    I could go on and on, but I’ll stop and just say, “Thank you” for unsticking the words I’ve had stuck in my throat for so long :)

  2. Miranda says:

    I’ve read about half of your post….as I’m currently pumping dinner for Emelyn. Formula would be such an easier choice for me and her tube feeds. Somedays I really feel tied down because of the fact that she cannot breast feed, so I must pump for her. There have been so many days, when ive been having problems with milk suply,when ive been so exhausted, and days that i just felt fed up , tat ive concidered just quitting, switching to formula, giving up. However, the motivation that keeps me going is knowing that this is something that I can do for my daughter that no one else can. And although we don’t get the same bonding that an actual breast fed baby will have, I feel that we are still closer, bonded because of her being exclusively breast fed via pumping. I am excited that I have started to introduce solids, another thing that little Emelyn and I can do together. A new way we can bond together as we learn her tastes and preferences in eating. It is such a wonderful adventure being a mom.

  3. LivandLex says:

    When I “chose” to feed my babies formula it wasn’t actually because that was what I wanted to do. It was because of a lack of information, support and options. Ultimately, I don’t feel like I made a choice at all and I think years later that is what really upsets me about the whole issue. Ulitmately, I don’t believe formula company marketing led me to make a choice to use their product. Indeed it is a goverment level problem in which education and feeding alteratives are not given the attention, support and funding they need.

    • Cennet says:

      From what I know, formula is devried from cows milk, and nature only intended that for calves, not humans, so it isn’t the perfect source of nutrition for human babies. Also, the content of breastmilk changes to suit the baby’s requirements and immunities from the mother are passed to the child, which doesn’t happen in formula. One last thing, not sure really how much water this holds though, is that since you can’t overfeed a breastfed baby, they are less likely to develop habits that lead to overeating as they aren’t as strictly held to drinking a specific number of ounces as formula fed babies are.I formula fed our son, I don’t apologize for it. I had a horrible start to breastfeeding and should have done things differently, but I didn’t and my son seems to be developing on track.

  4. Pingback: Not evil, just corporations and marketing 101. - Natural Urban Mama | Natural Urban Mama

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