An Advertising Campaign Worth Watching
By Kelly Burgess
Chances are, if you’re pregnant now or ever were, you walked away from your first prenatal visit with a little bag, emblazoned with the logo of a big formula company—but it’s more than a bag filled with free gifts and coupons. You see, formula companies pay millions of dollars each year to promote formula feeding through commercial advertising. The expectant or new mother is their target, and the sooner they get their name and product into her hands, the better. Breastfeeding, which makes money for no one, can’t begin to compete.
The United States has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the entire world.
“It’s gotten to the point where people don’t even think of breastfeeding because it’s never even presented as an option,” says Dr. Jack Newman, an international expert on breastfeeding issues. “It’s like they forget the breast has that purpose. A lot of this is because formula companies spend millions and millions of dollars to promote formula and to buy physicians and hospitals. If you have a baby you’ll get a gift pack of formula whether you’re breastfeeding or not.”
The United States has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the entire world. Many experts and organizations attribute this to the fact that breastfeeding isn’t promoted at the same level as formula feeding in this country. A national ad campaign put out by the Office of Women’s Health, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), hoped to change that.
This $40 million National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign hoped to bring home the message that “Babies were born to be breastfed.”
Leveling the Field
The whole point of the DHHS campaign was merely to level the financial playing field between promoting formula and promoting breastfeeding—it was unique in that it not only promotes the benefits of breastfeeding, it also highlights research showing the potential hazards of not breastfeeding.
This last bit has caused its share of controversy on both sides of the breastfeeding debate. The $40 million campaign was originally set to begin during the 2003 observance of World Breastfeeding Week, with the ads being a tightly guarded secret because of fears that companies with financial interests in formula would attempt to tone down the campaign’s powerful message. Ultimately, some of the ads were leaked, and eventually the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested to DHHS that the campaign was too harsh, and DHHS suspended it for further review.
These concerns were valid—to a point. One of the great facets of our society is that we have choices, and those choices are honored. After careful consideration, some women choose not to breastfeed. Reasonable people do not want to see those women vilified, and this is what some of the opponents of the original campaign feared.
On the other hand, there is a definite need, particularly in low-income communities, to begin urging those who can to breastfeed. At the very least, every pregnant women should know as much about breastfeeding as they do about formula feeding, and they should know that breastfeeding is what babies are supposed to do.
“In addition to the money, which is huge, of course, there is the feminist angle, as well,” says Dr. Jay Gordon, a pediatrician and high-profile breastfeeding advocate. “They say they don’t want to disrespect women who choose not to breastfeed, but in fact this is what women do: They nourish and nurture our children. If it were supported as it should be, it would be the ultimate feminist statement.”
From a public health standpoint, it’s not educated feminists that are being hurt the most by the lack of breastfeeding information and education. In fact, these women are the ones most likely to have done research on their own and to be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. But low-income women are suffering.
Leslie Burby, one of the founders of ProMom, a breastfeeding advocacy group, says that one of our most fragile populations, Native Americans, has a breastfeeding rate that is close to zero, while their diabetes rates are horrendous. Even so, these women are encouraged to formula feed by programs such as WIC that subsidize formula. There are no educational programs available to explain that breastfed babies have much lower rates of diabetes than formula-fed babies.
Born to Breastfeed
Partly due to the activities of breastfeeding activists, who desperately want to get the message out, the breastfeeding campaign launched in spring 2004 with a few changes. Dr. Newman says that the campaign aims to make breastfeeding as well-promoted as formula feeding.
One obstacle to the promotion of breastfeeding has been that physicians generally have absolutely no training in breastfeeding, but that’s not the case with formula. Industry reps visit doctor’s offices to instruct them on the latest advances and benefits with formula. When the two combine—lack of breastfeeding education and an abundance of formula education—it’s no wonder breastfeeding becomes the second choice, even for physicians.
Will the ad campaign help? Cindy Curtis, IBCLC, administrator of Breastfeeding Online, worries that the campaign may not be well received because of society’s discomfort with the idea of breasts. She’s found that advertising for breastfeeding isn’t always easy.
“I’ll put breastfeeding backgrounds on the computers at work, and people will change them,” says Curtis. “We had some supervisors put up pictures of moms breastfeeding, and people complained because they showed ‘boobs.’”
According to Dr. Newman and others, the problem is that we live in a society where bottle feeding is seen as the norm, partly because the breast has strong sexual connotations in our culture. In the end, “boobs” have to become commonplace if breastfeeding is to become accepted as normal and natural. Advocates agree that, barring access to the kind of funds formula companies have, this campaign is a good place to start.