How Advertising Hurts Moms, Part 1: Misleading Ads and The Code’s Purpose

Image via Fooducate Blog

If you’ve hung around us much, or some of our online community, no doubt you’ve heard the World Health Organization’s International Code [of Ethics] for Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes. For some people, this matters a lot. Others don’t understand so much why mere advertising is such a big deal.

One of the biggest issues with advertising is that it works — but people refuse to admit that it does, as if saying that marketing works is admitting they can be mislead.

We’ve all been mislead by something…  People got pretty angry when they discovered that Airbone was pretty much a placebo and Bayer’s long-running campaign that suggested that taking aspirin daily should be part of any adult’s daily regime to help prevent health attacks or stroke was actually pretty dangerous advice, and unlike most medication commercials there was no stream of possible side effects — just “Talk to your doctor.” Most people consider aspirin pretty harmless and many people believe that all adults should take it daily, without consulting a doctor… effective advertising, even if they did eventually shell out a ton of money in fines. The Federal Trade Commission laid the smack-down on Kellogg’s for false “cognitive“, “immunity” and “attentiveness” claims for cereals … but how many people saw that and thought, “They couldn’t say that if it weren’t true… right?”

But when you start talking about infant formula and bottles, there seems to be kid gloves and willing denial that snaps down in the form of rose-colored glasses over peoples’ eyes, and they often decide that any suggestion that MOMS are mislead are incredibly offensive, and are just accusations that moms are stupid and can’t think for themselves.

No one thinks moms are stupid, but the problem, like I said on a recent post on The Stir about the FDA’s research into the real affects of formula marketing, a statement on a can that says, “Contains DHA and ARA, fatty acids found in breast milk that are necessary for brain and eye development” sounds really great to a lot of moms, and almost all moms would always choose a DHA and ARA formula… without knowing that the companies never had to have FDA approval for the ingredient, it’s never been totally proven to help anything (and they’ve even admitted it might not), causes dangerous diarrhea in many newborns and is genetically-modified fungus and algae, then refined with the neurotoxin ‘hexane’, which is refined crude oil. And yet, despite the increased cost to moms, and taxpayers (since these are the formulas WIC purchases), people still buy the DHA formula as if it’s been proven to be just as effective as say, aspirin for everyone to protect you from heart attacks. No concern for individual bodies, reactions, or anything. Just complete and total indoctrination into our culture of belief that these advertising claims are substantiated fact.

Elita of Blacktating and I discussed how we fell victim to the well-planned advertising scam of having formula given to us by doctors, and as nervous new moms who were trying to do our very best, when we were worried about our supplies, what formula did we go out and buy more of? Yeah, the exact same one the hospital gave us, because hey, they baby tolerates it “fine” and if the hospital gives it to newborns, it can’t be a crappy one, right? Well that’s a form of advertising too, and it is disgustingly effective. Hence the Ban the Bags campaign, which I totally support in every way possible.

So what’s the Code got to do with this?

Everything. has a really good breakdown of the goal of the Code in layman’s terms:

To contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breastfeeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breastmilk substitutes, when they are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution.

The Code applies to the marketing, and practices related thereto, of the following products: breastmilk substitutes, including infant formula; other milk products, foods and beverages, including bottle-fed complementary foods, when marketed or otherwise represented to be suitable, with or without modification, for use as a partial or total replacement of breastmilk; feeding bottles and teats.

Now, there’s lots the Code covers, including what Elita and I fell prey to — free gifts through hospital systems, espcecially if not requested and aimed at breastfeeding moms:

  • There should be no advertising or promotion to the general public of products within the scope of the Code
  • No samples may be given to mothers
  • There should be no point-of-sale advertising
  • There should be no gifts of articles or utensils given to pregnant women or mothers of infants and young children

The goal here isn’t to stunt companies profits, but to protect moms from being sold onto formula as superior to lifesaving breastmilk. It would be as if we had saline bags available for IVs toted as superior to drinking. Nothing says companies can’t give out freebies or coupons to people WHO SIGN UP FOR THEM THEMSELVES, but there are so, so many ways that new moms end up with them. Heck, give Motherhood Maternity your information and you will have formula show up on your doorstep. Often hospitals even give out formula AND information to the formula companies, so not only do you have bottles sent home with your newborn but some shows up on your doorstep as well.

Imagine if you were trying to lose weight, seeing a dietitian about healthy ways to do so… and were send home with a bag of weight loss pills, and had samples mailed to you and coupons as well, with literature telling you that traditional weight loss is pretty hard but this allows you to ‘live your life and still lose weight in a healthy way’?  Some of you say, “I’d throw it away,” and good for you… but for a lot of people, statistically most people in fact, that pressure and sabotage is quite effective.

Another part of the Code requires that all information:

  • The benefits and superiority of breastfeeding
  • Maternal nutrition, and the preparation for and maintenance of breastfeeding
  • The negative effect on breastfeeding of introducing partial bottle feeding
  • The difficulty of reversing the decision not to breastfeed
  • Where needed, the proper use of infant formula, whether manufactured or home prepared.

Let’s face it… when your doctor or OB sends you home with a Nestle pamphlet (or Gerber, which many people don’t know is Nestle now), the info inside is GUARANTEED to be phrased in a way that is dishonest and misleading. They always underplay the risks of supplementing, rarely if ever address the effect on your supply, and ALWAYS play off breastfeeding as incredibly painful and difficult and make sure you “know” that “most women can’t do it.”

Last but not least (in my article anyway, there’s much more) is the bit on LABELING:

  • Should provide necessary information about the appropriate use of the product and not to discourage breastfeeding.
  • Must include: “important notice”; a statement of the superiority of breastfeeding; use on advice of a health worker; instructions on appropriate preparation
  • Should have no pictures of infants
  • Should have a statement of the following points: ingredients; composition of product; storage conditions required; batch number and the date it is expiring

Necessary information about the product? You mean, like how in other countries, with the Code, they’re required to list that all powdered formula is non-sterile and 14% is contaminated with E. sakazaaki bacteria which especially in preemies or immune-compromised infants can result in death? Yeah, because we don’t implement the code, very few women know OR believe that. In fact, powdered formula should never be used for preemies or immune-compromised babies, ever. Nor is any of the information on the label about DHA and ARA being shown in the field to cause dangerous diarrhea in newborns.

The bit about appropriate preparation? How many moms do you know who use tap water? Or fluoridated bottled water? The preparation recommended by many health organizations which helps kill potentially deadly bacteria is to heat to a boil, let cool just below boiling but keep still about the temperature of a fresh latte (158 °F) and mix IMMEDIATELY into the powder… and if not using immediately, it needs to be chilled very, very fast to prevent bacteria growth… as in, put into ice, really cold water or the freezer for a minute. Popping it in the fridge doesn’t cool it fast enough to prevent bacteria growth.  Similac’s bottle preparation on their website, however, implies the water can cool way beyond that temperature before using, or that bottled water doesn’t even need to be heated (despite most of it being merely bottled tap water with the same impurities), says to refrigerate if not used but doesn’t stress that the formula needs to cool quickly, and of course, has no warnings about bacteria whatsoever, leaving the implication that your only concern is the water, not their product. Of course.

See how even a lack of information on a label can be potentially deadly?

This isn’t just about a company’s right to advertise a product, but about such lacking information that babies literally are endangered unless moms seek out external sources, such as the FDA’s guide on proper formula preparation, which, let’s face it… is probably a little more complicated in language than a lot of people are totally grasp.

Aah, I’ve again written a novel, and this is only Part 1. But maybe this helps you understand that the WHO’s Code is about honesty when lives and health are on the line. Whether it’s something on the lower end of the spectrum like Medela suggesting pumping makes women happier than breastfeeding directly, or on the top of the disturbing chain where Nestle resides, literally disguising employees as health professionals to force their product on South Africans, resulting in many deaths (like they were warned would happen), the WHO Code is so much more than it’s given credit for, and advertising is so much more than people are willing to admit.

But until we DO admit that lying through omission is dangerous, and misleading ads do mislead people, we’re letting formula companies get away with murder. Literally.


About Christie Haskell

I'm a Pagan, pierced, latte-sipping liberal mom to two kids and a cat. I've been on Good Morning America, HuffPo Live, and featured in a lot of online publications like New York Times Motherlode, and print publications like Kiwi Magazine. My articles focus a lot on parenting, food, and social health issues. I'm really opinionated and love to back those opinions with facts.

5 Responses

  1. I’ve Shared this with my friends who formula feed. I had no idea about the DHA ARA thing, and I am horrified that formula containing it are allowed to be sold. Thank you.


  2. Louise

    It is horrifying that such things are permitted in baby formula – why is there so little protection for our babies when this would not be allowed in adult food – I have seen this so many times! Parents who formula feed do not know – and many of them do not want to know


  3. Thank you so much for this article. I have so many friends who actually get angry with me for mentioning that I will not use formula unless absolutely needed (it was with my first after thyroid/supply issues) because I have chosen to breast feed. They get offended when I mention on my blog or otherwise that breast feeding is the safest and best. They repeatedly say how formula is the same or better. They don’t take care when preparing bottles for their little ones – they maintain that their doctor said just using cold tap water is the best way to prepare bottles. I will be sharing this information!


  4. Thanks for every other magnificent article. The place else may anyone get that type of info in such a
    perfect manner of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I am at the look for such information.


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