Wednesday, 4 July 2012

More WHO Code breaches - the sneaky tricks of advertisers

I would like to start this post repeating what I have said before. The International Code on the Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the WHO Code) is about making sure that formula, bottles etc are marketed in a way which is safe and appropriate. It is not 'anti-formula'. Australia has agreed to follow the WHO Code, but only a portion of it is covered by law. By highlighting breaches of the WHO Code I am not making comment about one's choice to use formula or to use a dummy or to breastfeed or to introduce solids at x months or anything. It is about exposing the deceitful and unethical advertising tricks of large companies. Many of the sneaky advertising tricks used by formula companies are also used by tobacco companies. I feel that it is responsible to expose these tactics.
I went to a baby expo with Chubs recently. Actually, we went twice. Why did I decide to go to such a consumer-fest when I had no intention of spending money? Well, I was keen for free samples of nappies et cetera, and there were free kiddy concerts and activities. I had a free entry ticket (door price $14) so for the cost of a train fare in and back it was good for a rainy day.

I knew what I was going to find, and sure enough - WHO Code breaches as far as the eye can see. In Australia formula for under 12 months cannot be advertised, however the formula companies found their way around that, as ever.

Here are the 'generous' gifts they showered me with.
From Nestle:
- A branded reusable bag (branded with the 'baby club')
- A branded colouring book
- A branded cooler bag
- A whole stash of 'advice' leaflets.
From Wyeth
- a branded reuseable bag
- a branded colouring book
- a pack of branded crayons in a branded colouring tube
- a sample of toddler formula
- more 'advice' pamphlets
These 'free gifts' are full of practical, useful items and are covered in logos. Have a look at the colouring books. The Wyeth one has the S26 logo on the bottom of every page, and the pictures on the Nestle one are actually pictures of the blue bear logo doing things!

See how the logo is on each and every crayon, too?
Everything item in these bags - and the bags themselves - are designed to be used. These were given out at a baby show. Where are people who attend baby shows likely to go afterwards? Somewhere where there are other parents of small children. What's a great thing to keep small children busy? Colouring books. With crayons in a super useful travel tube. All with 'S26 Gold Toddler' written on them. The more you see something, the more normal it becomes.

The cooler bag from Nestle is one of my 'favourites'. Just like branded scale mats and branded breast pads, a cool bag is perhaps one of the worst items which could be branded by a formula company. When is it likely that a parent would be packing a cool bag which is the perfect size for a day's worth of bottles? Possibly when the child is heading off to day care, which is likely to coincide with Mum's return to work. Continuing breastfeeding while working is almost always possible at least in part, but depending on your circumstances it can be anything from super easy to really. damn. hard. So when things get tough and you're packing bottle for day care and you're stressed about if you'll have time to pump at lunch time and if you've recharged the pump batteries, there's the friendly little blue bear there on the cool bag as a reminder.

Yes, these packs did contain lots of advice saying how breast is best and that the WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and that you should talk to your health professional before using infant formula. Well, some of it did. The stuff that has to, that is.

Firstly, if you look closely, you will see that the logos are either for a baby club, or for the toddler formula. As I said above, advertising of infant formula is not allowed, but toddler formula is. The toddler formula logos look very similar to the infant (0 - 6 month) and follow on (6 - 12 month) formula logos, which is very intentional. By advertising the almost-identical logos of toddler formula, then there is recognition of the advertising-prohibited logos at the point of sale. Toddler formula has no extra nutrition that a child couldn't get from a cup of full cream cows' milk and a multivitamin (which would be much cheaper) but it's the advertising loophole that it exists to jump through.

The other logo that you see a lot is the baby club. This is linked to the 'advice' pamphlets too. These are dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, they are dangerous because it promotes the idea that these companies have babies' health as a priority. (If this was the case, then why do they not follow the guidelines to protect their health which they know aren't enforced under law?) Secondly, 'information services' such as baby clubs, pamphlets and help lines are clearly and specifically defined as marketing.
"Marketing" means product promotion, distribution, selling, advertising, product public relations, and information services.
Article 3 International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes
Now, I did have to give the formula companies something in order to get my 'free' gifts. My all important email address, and the ages of my children/ estimated due dates. I needed to answer a whole series of questions about my baby - none of the nappy companies wanted to know any of that before they gave me their samples. They wanted all that information so that they can fill my inbox with age appropriate 'advice' - which can be timed to when things are probably going bad.

You'll notice that I said above that they only had the 'breast is best' spiel when they had to? Despite the fact that breastfeeding is recommened until two years and beyond, there is no mention of the 'breast is best' stuff on the sample of S26 Gold Toddler in my goodie bag. (And yes, giving out samples is against the WHO Code, too.) If Wyeth really thought that 'breastmilk is best for your baby' then why aren't they saying that on a sample for babies over 12 months - because the law doesn't make them.

So why did I get the bags? Well, to be honest, I wanted to share these unethical practises with my blog readers to expose them. I knew very well what would happen if I went into the baby expo. What will I do with the stuff? As much as I hate throwing useable things away since it's wasteful, I used the perfect- condition bags as bin liners; the garbage truck will pick them up in the morning. The Nestle colouring book and all the 'advice' marketing got tossed too. The crayons I've kept since I do love the tube - I'll see if I can cover it over somehow? The cool bag is actually the perfect size for Chubs' lunchbox (not the one I send her to daycare with, but the sections one that she eats from throughout the day if we're out and about.) It's really good quality too, so I'm going to see if I can cover the logo up somehow. The S26 sample? I'll mix it up and give it to Chubs one day instead of the soy milk or cows' milk she would have had otherwise, maybe on her breakfast cereal - but I can assure you that I won't be buying a tin any time soon.

Do I expect to change the world by whinging about a few sample bags? Well, like anything, probaby not. But if it makes a few more people aware of the sneakiness that goes on and to look at these giveaways a little more cynically and with a little more caution, well you know wht they say. They ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who sometimes do.

PS - no reply back yet from the pharmacy CEO...


  1. strolltotheshopsJuly 04, 2012 3:20 pm

    Nice blog post.
    The marketing techniques of ABM companies is quite awful.

    1. It;s so sneaky, I am glad that the worst of it is prohibited in Aust though.

  2. Love your work :)
    Some may say the comparison with tobacco advertising is over the top but I completely agree and hope one day the formula marketing will be outed too!

    1. I certainly don't think it's over the top but it is even more important for unethical advertising to be regulated. Formula is still a vital, necessary and important product, therefore it's even more complex than tobacco advertising. Here's hoping that it will be outdated in the future!

  3. Great post. Marketing starts EARLY so they're actually marketing to Chubs too. I grew up overseas and although I wasn't around babies apart from my brother (4 years younger) I still recognise all the formula brands in that country that I haven't lived in for 15 years!

    1. That's amazing - all the more reason for toddler milk advertising to be banned too.

  4. Great post :)

    Just out of curiositiy - do the s26 ones say Pfizer on them? I think they've actually stopped using the Wyeth brand now.

    1. They do say Pfizer on them, yes. I thought that Pfizer was owned by Wyeth though, or is it the other way around? But yes, they do say Pfizer.


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