Thursday, December 15, 2011

Formula Companies Dare to Compare Imitations to the Real Thing

This post is about advertising, marketing and deception.  We as educators, public health professionals, moms, citizens, consumers, tax payers, etc.  have to demand honesty in advertising--especially from the formula companies.  These companies use inferior ingredients, cut corners in production, and then lie about its value, causing customers to flock to the registers with complete peace of mind.  As consumers, we question the quality of what we purchase and we want what we pay for...then there's formula...

I made some tongue-in-cheek posters last week.  I am a very visual learner, so I created a visual.  I was attempting to show the stark difference between formula and breastmilk in a vivid, humorous way, but the humor was lost on some.

My posters showed the stark contrast between artificial infant milk and breastmilk.  The superiority of breastmilk is not a new concept, but rather a well-documented, well-established, scientific fact. The two are NOT created equal.  In fact, by law, every can of formula must explain that breastmilk is superior to the product contained therein.  One is a man-made, synthetic recipe; the other a natural, organic species-specific food.  Just like vitamin C tablets are not as potent or healthy as natural vitamin C from real fruit consumed; formula (artificial breast milk) is not as healthy as natural, species-specific breastmilk.

Most of the people who viewed the photos I posted gave it a "thumbs up" and some re-posted. Facebook is pretty good at tracking where posts travel via shares and the subsequent comments.  It was the dialogue that surfaced on some of my friends' pages that truly concerned me.  I realized for the first time how successful the formula companies are at not only dominating the infant feeding market, but also controlling the critics that may voice any opposition.  They conjure up feelings of guilt, anger, fear, disappointment and frustration--not for their product or marketers--but at those who may want to point out that their product is did they accomplish that?

One irate commentator "shouted" obscenities and cursed the person who made the poster...strong, emotional response--was this response to the false advertising and implied similarities of formula and breastmilk?  No, as far as I could tell, the reader took offense at what she perceived the message insinuated...that she was a "bad" mother. Nothing could be further from the truth.  I even prefaced the ad with the following remarks
"Just a visual reminder that no matter how the formula companies try to package it, formula and breastmilk are NOT created equal...another thought on the deceptive advertising of formula...(not-and never will be-an attack on those who use it...)"

If a mom gives her infant formula to ensure survival she is definitely a good mom!  There are many legitimate reasons to use or supplement with formula (adoptive moms, foster moms, dads with custody, moms on certain medications...all rely on the nutrition adequacy of artificial infant milk), but still the reader saw:  formula=bad mom; breastmilk=good mom; and I was absolutely, positively judging them!  When a company can cause formula-using moms to take things personally they have achieve a great accomplishment. These companies have undoubtedly succeeded in attaching feelings to facts and substitute perception for reality.

Then there was responses from colleagues in the lactation field.  A couple stated that although they know the risks of formula feeding, they anticipated that people might be offended and riddled with guilt if they were to share my photo on their wall.  Now, this is where the formula companies really hit the jackpot.  Not only do they promote their product, but they also have successfully silenced the opposition.  Really?!  Professionals can't share that there are risks to formula-feeding without retaliation?  Are we free to share risks of not using a car seat or feeding infants honey, egg whites and peanut butter?  What if parents want to give these foods to their children?  Does that mean I am prohibited to share the information for fear of causing guilt? Of course not, but these other safety and feeding recommendations do not elicit the same emotional response the formula warnings do.

It appears as though formula companies have even found a way to convince breastfeeding advocates to keep silent about opinions and concerns.  Even as I write this, I have a bit of fear and trepidation about how this blog will be received.  Will people understand that I want to educate, and that my heart is in helping moms regardless of what their feeding choice is?  Will readers understand I am campaigning for honesty in advertising, or will I fall victim to the scandal that all opposition is insensitive and cruel?  I really am at a loss for how to change perception.  I hope others will help me turn the tide of perception by sharing this post.

What other company can get the loyal consumers on board and silent the opposition? Formula is a taboo subject to discuss in any circle. It has a protective barrier around it and is off-limits when it comes to criticism.  How did they ever achieve this marketing phenomenon?

I am also a bit perplexed and maybe even in awe at how the big formula companies have succeeded in promoting their imitations as "close to the real thing." No one believes that artificial infant milk is as good as breastmilk, but the nation accepts that it is "close enough."  I have to congratulate the conglomerates for their marketing genius and their ability to control perception.

I often stand in front of a group I am teaching and take a side step to my left and boldly announce, "I am now one step closer to China." Of course, I am no where near China, but one step closer.  Recently, I created this poster to convey the same message:

Here's another way for me to put this in perspective.  If a young couple walked into a jewelry store, while window shopping for an engagement ring, and a savvy salesman produced the sugar-coated ring pop with the description that it is "closer to a diamond than ever before," the customers would be outraged, insulted and storm out of the shop (of course the guy may still nonchalantly ask, "how much for the beautiful topaz").  The point is, we are wise to manipulation--especially from salespeople. The candy sentiment may be beautiful, shiny, slide nicely onto the ring finger, but it is not the same as a diamond--and how dare a jeweler insinuate that it is!

Would honesty be appreciated?  Absolutely...the same salesman could have said, "I have this replica that could serve the purpose of a symbol during the nuptials.  It isn't a diamond.  It is made of hard sugar, but you can use it as a stand in."  Then the couple could make an informed decision.  Most would prefer the diamond, but no one but they know all the circumstances.  Maybe a diamond is not an option.  Perhaps the bride has adverse reactions to metal and the plastic alternative is perfect!  They can confidently select the confectionery token without any guilt.  Content with their choice, they are still happy for those who can buy diamonds and understand that diamonds are superior, they do not try to argue the incredible investment that ring pops are and become outraged when anyone suggests that diamonds are superior. It would be ludicrous.

Take the next scenario.  A customer steps onto a used car lot.  Just the location puts people on the defensive by anticipating lies or stretching of the truth.  I'm not saying it's right or even warranted, just a matter of  car lot facts. The car salesman approaches the on-looker with a beauty to sale.  It has four wheels, a new paint job, will get you where you need to go and is "just as good as" the Lamborghini parked adjacent.  Really, who are you kidding?!  Consumer Reports are out and the little, plastic toy does not beat the sports car in any category (well, except MPG--which could actually be a good selling point in this gas war).  The real kicker comes with the sticker price...the dwarfed vehicle is actually priced higher.  The salesman blames inflation and the premium parts that have been used in construction.  Once again, no sale.  We are not going to be duped by a smooth talker.  We are going to look under the hood, kick the tires, and we may in all actuality purchase the little car...not because it is better--or even as good as--the hot rod, but because we need transportation and it is a viable option, but not because we "bought the lie."

Now, let me attempt to share the how these same analogies are used in formula promotion. The impracticable, ridiculous sales tactics mentioned above are laughable, but when marketing experts use them to promote formula, they now miraculously work!  The company passes off an inferior product as the real thing.  Customers are promised that it is "closer than ever to breastmilk."

How can they make these unsubstantiated claims?  Professionals working in the advertising world will attest that these phrases can be legally used if even the color is closer to breastmilk than it was previously.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Department of Public Health all try to expose the deceptive marketing to no avail. These companies seem to be untouchable--even with facts.

Not only are established organizations' warnings rejected, friends and family attempt to share the truth about formula and the "Ring Pop crowd" embraces a mob mentality.  All of the sudden well-meaning friends are labeled "Breastfeeding Nazis" or "Lactivists."  Why is the truth so threatening?  Why would sharing the truth be interpreted as "making formula-feeding moms feel guilty"?

Here's a confession, just because I feel like readers may think I cannot relate.  I formula-fed my first child.  Not exclusively, I breastfed when it was convenient. Do I feel guilty when I hear how certain risks are increased with formula-feeding.  No, absolutely not.  I was convinced that formula and breastmilk were equal.  My nurse gave my son formula...she was older, "wiser" and had more children than I, so I deferred feeding to the lady Nightingale.  Now, I am upset that no one shared the truth with me. No one said the manufacturers cut corners, use inferior ingredients and market their product in order to please the share holders because it is a commodity that people heavily invest in...that would have been helpful.  I also put my son on his belly to sleep--another sign of the times.  I would do things differently now.  A lot of us would.

I have friends, family and clients that have had to use formula to feed their infants.  They do not feel guilty either.  It is a matter of fact.  They almost all would have preferred breastmilk, but it wasn't an option.  They knew the facts, were informed and also admit that scientists and other experts are correct in stating that breastmilk is the best choice. They are not part of the crowd that takes remarks personally.

Remember, by law every formula company has to confirm that breastmilk is superior to formula.  They have to print it right on the packaging labels, but do we get angry at the formula companies for this atrocious declaration? No, we direct our anger at a friend, family member or random individual that posts something on Facebook.  Wow, how do they do it?

Why have my ads elicited such emotional responses from some people?  Once again, I think it is part of the marketing.  

Please indulge me as I share another personal analogy of artificial food.  TPN  (Total parenteral nutrition) keeps getting improved is "closer than ever to nutritious food."  My dad had to be on it to get nutrients that he couldn't get by eating food, we appreciated the medical advance, but wouldn't have chosen it as our first choice, we knew food was was just a matter of fact that we would need to use it to replace food to sustain life...we didn't feel guilty for using the TPN, or offended when professionals explained there were risks to using TPN as a food alternative, I understood it was lifesaving, but I was also happy for the rest of my family that could eat whole one ever tried to convince us that TPN was equal to whole food...doctors and nutritionists were very transparent. Why is formula any different?

These are some final remarks and observations that I believe help the formula companies perpetuate a feeling of guilt when someone mentions the formula vs. breastmilk topic.  Moms feel guilty. That is a fact. Formula companies know this and they take advantage of moms during a vulnerable time in their lives...they play on a temporary weakness.  Moms assume the "fight or flight mode" and fight off a perceived attack...guns are cocked and everyone is ready for a fight...we will defend ourselves at all costs...good meaning friends must also be aware of this delicate time in a mother's life and assume a protective role as we educate.  That may seem like an oxymoron, but it is possible and preferred. 

How else can we combat the advertising moguls?  We must figure out a way to remove feelings from formula.  Just like readers had to try to remove feelings from fact as this article was being read.  It's difficult because perception is reality.

So what can we say about formula?  The truth.   formula was created to sustain life by trying to replicate breastmilk, much like TPN is used, but that does not make it the same as and truth can go along way, and everyone deserves to be informed...

Sometimes there is no choice, but given a choice, it only makes sense...

I hope this doesn't come across as segmented.  I have a lot of thoughts and this blog has taken way too much time to compose, but I have been cautious and rewritten it a few times.  I will just have to submit it to the public after I make a final note to my lactivist friends: we must be extremely cautions to never confirm what the formula companies try to insinuate: that guilt and fear, depression and anger should be directed at lactation consultants.  If we make clients defensive, we are promoting the formula companies agenda.  We must be honest, sincere, gentle, supportive and loving (in fact, maybe even a little more than we naturally are).

Hope this provided some food for thought...
Christy Jo Hendricks, IBCLC, RLC, CD(DONA), CAPPA CLE Faculty

Hope you can join me for a lactation training in the future...together we can make a difference