Monday, October 02, 2006

Writing letters and influencing people

Our Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet has achieved some significant victories since it began in 1997. We give information on specific cases of aggressive marketing of baby foods and ask supporters to send a letter to the Chief Executive of the company responsible. There is a suggested letter to make it straightforward, address and fax number. The on-line version has an email address or links to the company website comment form - though we find companies keep moving these around to try to shake us off. The suggested letter basically says: "We know what you are doing and we want you to stop."

I was inspired to start the campaign after taking part in a training course in Kazakhstan run by the International Code Documentation Centre. I was trained alongside lawyers and officials from the Ministry of Health from countries of the former Soviet Union. Companies had gone into the region following the fall of communism and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) wanted to provide training on the marketing requirements for baby foods.

On the course I spoke with other participants about what was happening in their countries. They became increasingly concerned as they learned the marketing practices they were seeing were prohibited by United Nations standards, but the companies continued regardless. While this motivated them to go back and work on bringing in laws, they were also looking for ways to stop what was going on right then.

A case that particularly concerned me was Nestlé's marketing in Armenia. The paediatrician on the course explained Nestlé had been advertising on television, on its distribution vans and on trams in the capital Yerevan. Although the boycott put pressure on Nestlé to change its practices, I realised we needed something more specific for urgent cases such as this. Inspired by Amnesty International's letter writing campaigns for political prisoners, I began the Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet. Supporters were invited to sign up to receive it and write letters to the Chief Executive of the company responsible.

After photographic evidence arrived from Armenia the case of Nestlé's entry into the market was featured on the action sheet in November 1997. The company clearly thought it could get away with the blatant open advertising because those who knew about the World Health Assembly marketing requirements were not watching. The letters showed people around the world were watching and knew the details to accuse it of breaking the marketing requirements.

The UK Corporate Affairs Department replied to the campaign stating: "We are in the process of reviewing our distribution arrangements in Armenia which will enable the monitoring of compliance with the International Code."

The blatant advertising in Armenia stopped. Nestlé's methods became subtler, such as recruiting paediatricians to recommend its products. We have continued to expose these practices and those of competitors. Hipp has been a particular concern.

Aspects of the marketing requirements have now been introduced in legislation in Armenia and breastfeeding rates have increased markedly. Those who wrote letters in 1997 and since can claim some of the credit.

The Armenian paediatrician recalled the impact of this campaign when I interviewed her in April 2006. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

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