Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mid-point bias

A case from the Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet shows how Nestlé tries to persuade people it is doing nothing wrong.

On our June 2003 action sheet we exposed how Nestlé was distributing leaflets in Botswana claiming with its Perlargon infant formula 'diarrhoea and its side-effects are counteracted'.

This message is very dangerous. Infants fed on the formula are more likely to suffer from diarrhoea - and become dehydrated and die as a result - than breastfed infants.

At the same time Nestlé was distributing leaflets claiming 'Growing is thirsty work' to promote its Lactogen infant formula.

These leaflets were found in clinics. Though Nestlé claims they are information for health workers, it is a common strategy for it to distribute such leaflets in large quantities so they are passed on to mothers.

At the same time, information for health workers must be limited to scientific and factual information, according to the World Health Assembly International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The leaflets in Botswana, as with many others, were unscientific. They were promotional materials which gave an untrue impression of the need for formula and its properties.

In its reply Nestlé effectively admitted this stating it was: '...preparing new materials for health professionals in Southern Africa with increased focus on the factual and scientific matters in these materials.' It claimed the leaflets being distributed in Botswana had already been discontinued (click here for Nestlé's full response).

So this was one of those cases where the promotion was so outrageous and such a clear breach of the marketing requirements Nestlé had to agree to change them. It did not agree to withdraw the existing leaflets. Nor did it apologise for violating the marketing requirements or explain why it had produced them in the first place. This shows Nestlé systems and instructions for producing materials are at fault - they churn out violations, which are only stopped by legislation or public pressure.

Two years later this issue came up again when we presented information to the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics in Investment (JACEI) of the Methodist Church. The Botswana leaflets were one of the examples discussed when Baby Milk Action addressed the committee. We had 30 minutes to speak and then 30 minutes of questions.

Then it was Nestlé's turn. Nestlé was asked about the Botswana leaflets and amazingly said it had not produced the leaflets. It claimed it: 'has never marketed Perlargon on the basis that it combats diarrhoea. Some governments have publicised the fact that Pelargon's infant formula is better than some other infant feeds.' When we saw this in the written record, we responded with a copy of the leaflet, showing it had been produced by Nestlé. (See it here).

So why is Nestlé prepared to say things that are clearly untrue?

I call its strategy 'mid-point bias'.

When outsiders look at information from Baby Milk Action and Nestlé they have to decide what to believe. The simplest and most accurate approach is to believe everything Baby Milk Action says because we stick strictly to the truth. This is through principle, but also because Nestlé could sue us for defamation if we said something about the company that is not true. Quite simply they could close us down if we could not stand up in court and prove what we say about their practices.

Nestlé on the other hand can say whatever it likes about its own activities, true or not. It is not possible to take it to court if it does not tell the truth about itself (though we did win a case before the Advertising Standards Authority, because advertisements do have to be truthful).

Someone new to the issue without the time to investigate in depth is likely to look at the two sets of information and think the truth lies somewhere on the line between the two positions. The longer Nestlé can make that line the further the mid-point moves away from the truth. In its presentations Nestlé can sound very reasonable and people can be taken in (there is another phenomena I call wilful self-deception which I'll talk about another time). Baby Milk Action has a harder task, because we can only work with the evidence - we cannot stretch the line in the other direction. We stick to the facts.

Of course, when people do take the time to look a bit more closely then the line breaks. Instead of looking to the mid-point, they see from the evidence that Nestlé was violating the marketing requirements and understand the lengths it goes to in trying to cover this up.

This is why we are calling for an in-depth, independent, expert tribunal that can look at the evidence taking as long as necessary. Nestlé has refused to even discuss the terms and conditions for this. Why? Because its mid-point bias strategy would fall apart.

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