The shocking scope of the exploitative marketing of baby formula: global issues

The global formula milk industry, valued at some US$55 billion, targets new mothers with personalized content on social media that is often not recognizable as advertising. Photo by Lucy Wolski on Unsplash
  • by Baher KamalMadrid)
  • Inter Press Service

In this regard, the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of April this year explained that formula milk companies are paying social media platforms and influencers to gain direct access to pregnant women and mothers in some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.

The global formula milk industry, valued at some US$55 billion, targets new mothers with personalized content on social media that is often not recognizable as advertising.

The new WHO report entitled The Scope and Impact of Digital Marketing Strategies to Promote Breastmilk Substitutes has outlined digital marketing techniques designed to influence the decisions new families make about how to feed their babies.

The company buys, collects personal information

“Through tools such as apps, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’, paid social media influencers, promotions and contests, and forums or advisory services, formula milk companies may purchase or collect personal information and send personalized promotions to new pregnant women and mothers. ”

The report summarizes the findings of new research that sampled and analyzed 4 million social media posts about infant feeding published between January and June 2021 using a commercial social listening platform.

These posts reached 2.47 billion people and generated more than 12 million likes, shares or comments.

Three more times

Formula milk companies post content to their social media accounts some 90 times a day, reaching 229 million users; representing three times more people reached by informative breastfeeding posts from non-commercial accounts.

This widespread marketing is increasing purchases of breast-milk substitutes and thus discouraging mothers from exclusively breastfeeding as recommended by the WHO.

“The promotion of commercial formula milk should have ended decades ago,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.

Increasingly powerful marketing techniques

“The fact that formula companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to increase their sales is inexcusable and must stop.”

The report compiled evidence from social listening research on public online communications and reports from individual countries of research that monitors promotions of breast-milk substitutes, and also drew on a recent multi-country study of the experiences of mothers and health professionals in the marketing of formula milk.

Studies show how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.

Flagrant violations of the law

The proliferation of global digital marketing of formula milk flagrantly violates the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code), which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981.

The Code is a landmark public health agreement designed to protect the general public and mothers from aggressive business practices in the baby food industry that negatively affect breastfeeding practices.

“Despite clear evidence that exclusive and continued breastfeeding are key determinants of improving the health of children, women and communities throughout their lives, too few children are breastfed as recommended. If current formula marketing strategies continue, that proportion could fall further, boosting companies’ profits.”

Industry to stop, governments to act

The WHO has called on the baby food industry to end the exploitative marketing of formula milk, and on governments to protect new children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to end all advertising or other promotion of formula milk products.

This is the first time that the WHO has used a social media intelligence platform to generate insights into the marketing practices of multinational formula manufacturers and distributors.

Social media intelligence platforms monitor social networks for mentions of defined keywords or phrases, which they collect, organize, and analyze.

This industry-standard approach “listens” to the billions of daily exchanges and conversations that take place between users on social media around the world and on other digital platforms such as websites and forums.

This research captured digital interactions that occurred between January 1 and June 30, 2021, referenced infant feeding in 11 languages ​​and 17 countries, together representing 61% of the world’s population and spanning all six regions of the WHO.

Pregnant women exposed to aggressive marketing

Parents and pregnant women around the world are exposed to aggressive marketing of infant formula, according to a report released jointly by two UN agencies last February.

How formula marketing influences our infant feeding decisions, the first in a series of reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), draws on interviews with parents, pregnant women, and health workers in eight countries. .

More than half of those surveyed acknowledged that they had been targeted by formula companies.


UNICEF and WHO contend that the formula milk industry uses systematic and unethical marketing strategies to influence parents’ infant feeding decisions and exploitative practices that compromise infant nutrition and violate international commitments.

“This report shows very clearly that the marketing of formula milk remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, calling for “urgently adopted and enforced regulations on marketing.” exploitative to protect the health of children.”

The report found not only that the industry’s marketing techniques include unregulated and invasive online counseling, but also sponsored helplines and counseling networks; offered promotions and gifts; and influenced the training and recommendations of health workers.

Surprised? Well, no one really should be, now that the voracious drive to make more profits and accumulate more money has already supplanted Nature and all that is natural.

© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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