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. The global formula milk industry, valued at some US$ 55 billion, is targeting new mothers with personalized social media content that is often not recognizable as advertising.
A new World Health Organization (WHO) report titled Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breast-milk substitutes has outlined the digital marketing techniques designed to influence the decisions new families make on how to feed their babies.
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 personalized promotions to new pregnant women and mothers.
The report summarizes findings of new research that sampled and analyzed 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.
Formula milk companies post content on their social media accounts around 90 times per day, reaching 229 million users; representing three times as many people as are reached by informational posts about breastfeeding from non-commercial accounts.
This pervasive marketing is increasing purchases of breast-milk substitutes and therefore dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively as recommended by WHO.
“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,” said 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.”
The report compiled evidence from social listening research on public online communications 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.
The proliferation of global digital marketing of formula milk blatantly breaches the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code), 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.
Despite clear evidence that exclusive and continued breastfeeding are key determinants of improved lifelong health for children, women and communities, far too few children are breastfed as recommended. If current formula milk marketing strategies continue, that proportion could fall still further, boosting companies’ profits.
The fact that these forms of digital marketing can evade scrutiny from national monitoring and health authorities means new approaches to Code-implementing regulation and enforcement are required. Currently, national legislation may be evaded by marketing that originates beyond borders.
WHO has called on the baby food industry to end exploitative formula milk marketing, and on governments to protect new children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to end all advertising or other promotion of formula milk products.
About the research
Evidence of exposure to and impact of digital breast-milk substitutes marketing was collected from several sources for this report. These include a systematic review of the literature, social listening research, a multi-country study of mothers’ and health professionals’ experience of breast-milk substitutes marketing, individual country reports of breast-milk substitutes promotions and an analysis of existing legal measures to implement the Code.
WHO created an external steering committee of experts from across WHO regions to advise on the design and methodology of the review and the report. Subject matter experts were selected for their expertise in social science, epidemiology, marketing, global health, nutrition, psychology and consumer behavior, human rights law, Code monitoring and implementation policy. Subject matter experts were drawn from all WHO regions, with the exception of the Eastern Mediterranean Region.
This is the first time WHO has used a social media intelligence platform to generate insight into the marketing practices of multi-national formula milk manufacturers and distributors. Social media intelligence platforms monitor social media for mentions of defined key words or phrases, which they gather, organize and analyze. This industry standard approach “listens” to the billions of daily exchanges and conversations that take place amongst social media users around the world and on other digital platforms, such as websites and forums.
This investigation captured digital interactions that occurred between 1 January and 30 June 2021, referenced infant feeding across 11 languages and 17 countries, which together account for 61% of the global population and span all six WHO regions.