UN body slams ‘exploitative marketing’ used by baby formula industry

By our News Team | 2022

World Health Organization claims digital marketing is ‘insidiously and persistently’ targeting millions of new mothers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva has released the second in a series of hard-hitting reports detailing what its calls “exploitative marketing practices” being employed by US$55-billion global baby formula industry.  

According to the WHO, its information shows that parents, particularly mothers, are being “insidiously and persistently” targeted online by the marketers of baby formula.

It says formula milk companies are paying social media platforms and influencers to gain direct access to pregnant women and mothers at some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives. In particular, the industry is targeting new mothers with personalised social media content that is often not recognisable as advertising.

“Through tools like apps, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’, paid social media influencers, promotions and competitions and advice forums or services, formula milk companies can buy or collect personal information and send personalised promotions to new pregnant women and mothers,” the report states.

Marketing Ethics

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It is entitled Scope and Impact of Digital Marketing Strategies for Promoting Breast-Milk Substitutes and summarises findings of new research that sampled and analysed 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’.

Companies are posting on social media 90 times a day

The WHO says formula milk companies post content on their social media accounts around 90 times per day, reaching 229-million users. This total represents three times as many people as are reached by informational posts about breastfeeding from non-commercial accounts. 

According to the health body, which is part of the United Nations, this pervasive marketing is increasing purchases of breast-milk substitutes and therefore dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively – as recommended by medical experts at the WHO. 

“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,” notes Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Nutrition and Food Safety department. “The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.”

Branca says the report compiled evidence from social listening research and individual country reports of research that monitors breast-milk substitute promotions, as well as drawing on a recent multi-country study of mothers’ and health professionals’ experiences of formula milk marketing. The studies show how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk, and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully. 

In a media statement, the WHO says the proliferation of global digital marketing of formula milk blatantly breaches the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which was adopted by the 1981 World Health Assembly. The Code is a landmark public health agreement designed to protect the general public and mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry that negatively impact breastfeeding practices.