WHO calls for end to ‘insidious’ online marketing of baby formula

29 April 2022

The $55 billion baby formula industry must end exploitative online marketing targeting parents, particularly mothers, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a new report published on Friday. 

The study found 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, through personalized content that is often not recognizable as advertising. 

Methods used include apps, virtual support groups or “baby clubs”, promotions and competitions, as well as advice forums or services. 

Driving up sales 

This pervasive marketing is increasing purchases of breast-milk substitutes, WHO said, thus dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively, as recommended by the UN agency. 

“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s 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.” 

90 posts a day 

The report, titled Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breast-milk substitutes, is the second in a series and follows an initial study, published in February, on how marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding. 

It summarizes findings of new research that sampled and analyzed four million social media posts about infant feeding published between January and June 2021 using a commercial social listening platform.  

The posts reached nearly 2.5 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, according to the study - or three times the number of people reached by informational posts about breastfeeding from non-commercial accounts.  

Misleading and undermining 

The authors also compiled evidence from social listening research on public online communications, and individual country reports of research that monitors breast-milk substitute promotions.   

They also drew on a recent international study of mothers’ and health professionals’ experiences of formula milk marketing.   

Studies revealed how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.  

End all advertising 

WHO has called on the baby food industry to end exploitative formula milk marketing, and on governments to protect children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to end all advertising or other promotion of formula milk products. 

The proliferation of global digital marketing of formula milk blatantly breaches a landmark international code on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, adopted 40 years ago, the agency said.  

The agreement is designed to protect the general public and mothers from aggressive marketing practices by the baby food industry that negatively impact breastfeeding practices. 

WHO said the fact that these forms of digital marketing can evade the scrutiny of national monitoring and health authorities, shows new approaches to code-implementing regulation and enforcement are required.  

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. 

WHO warned the proportion could fall further if current formula milk marketing strategies continue. 

 

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