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Infant Formula Ads and Breastfeeding Rates

June 2014

This month we examine the important question: How does the amount of money spent on advertising infant formula correlate to the uptake of infant formula?

The WHO Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes is not always well accepted by health care workers. Most people think they, and therefore mothers, are not influenced by advertising. It is reported that companies in the USA spend $70 billion a year on TV advertisements (across all products, not just infant formula!). Advertising does work! They expect, and get, a return on this huge investment. So what are the stats on advertising and formula uptake?

The enormous sums of money spent on advertising infant formula correlates closely to the uptake of infant formula in each country. For example in the UK, where the rate of exclusive breastfeeding (7% at 4 months) is one of the lowest in the world, companies spend 10 times more on advertising than the Department of Health spends on promoting breastfeeding. In Norway, by contrast, the rate is 64% at 4 months and advertising is strictly controlled.(1)

Successful advertising succeeds because it creates positive memories and feelings that influence behavior over time to encourage purchase at a later date. Think of the formula ads you have seen - they all have photos of cute, healthy babies and relaxed, loving mothers. Couple that with seeing these advertisements in the baby magazine they devour from cover to cover in their excitement, and noticing tins of formula or advertisements in the clinic or hospital and the association is a very positive one.

Another study(2) looked at the reported effect on mothers of exposure to infant formula marketing materials. They found that formula marketing appears to decrease mothers' confidence in their ability to breastfeed, especially when provided by health care practitioners. A decrease in self-confidence coupled with the positive feelings that have been created by advertisers and infant’s are the losers.
No one likes to think that they are easily influenced, but the proof is in the statistics. And that is why it is so important to continue to campaign for strengthening of the WHO Code and ensuring that your health care facility adheres strictly to its guidelines.

Until next time
Denise

Denise Fisher, AM, MMP, IBCLC
Director, Step2 Education

1. Brady, 2012. Marketing breastmilk substitutes throughout the world. http://adc.bmj.com/content/97/6/529.long

2. Parry K, Taylor E, Hall-Dardess P, Walker M, Labbok M. Understanding Women's Interpretations of Infant Formula Advertising. Birth. 2013 Jun;40(2):115-24.

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