Monday, September 03, 2007

Wyeth promotes SMA formula on UK television

We are getting emails and monitoring forms about the new Wyeth advertisement for SMA formula now running on UK television. You can report where and when you see the advertisement to us using the forms on the website we operate for the Baby Feeding Law Group. It also tells you how to register a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards should you wish to do so. See the monitoring section of:

I have to say the advertisement is very clever. It is a declaration of love from a man for his partner, a love undimmed by the changes to their relationship brought about by the arrival of their new child. A love strengthened, in fact. The sentiment, in isolation, may well make you feel warm and fuzzy or even bring a tear of recognition to your eye. It runs for 60 seconds and I'll tell you later how you can see it on line if you haven't caught it yet.

"I promise..." the father says in the advertisement and lists what he will and will not do, including doing his fair share of night feeding.

"Understanding parents. Understanding babies. For infant nutrition, trust the experts. SMA. We know."

Despite the young age of the baby shown, the reference to night feeding and the promotion of the SMA brand used for the range of breastmilk substitutes, the UK authorities are unlikely to do anything about this advertisement because our law is so lousy.

There is a shot right at the end of the film of SMA Progress, which is a follow-on milk. Still a breastmilk substitute (though Wyeth likes to suggest otherwise), but not covered by the ban on advertising with the UK law. We've had the ridiculous situation in the past where enforcement officers couldn't tell themselves whether it was infant formula or follow-on formula being advertised. Infant formula is illegal. Follow-on formula is legal. The experts couldn't tell without asking the company, but parents are expected by the law to draw the distinction. See the report on this case in our Update newsletter.

Article 11.3 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981 as a minimum requirement for all countries, states:

Independently of any other measures taken for implementation of this Code, manufacturers and distributors of products within the scope of this Code should regard themselves as responsible for monitoring their marketing practices according to the principles and aim of this Code, and for taking steps to ensure that their conduct at every level conforms to them.

So even though our law is lousy, Wyeth knows it should not be running this advertisement. But it does not care. Nor, to date, does the UK Government. Five years ago the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Government to implement the Code in UK legislation. It still has not done so. A draft put out for a consultation that will end this month does not implement the Code either. It will allow advertising to continue.

Unless we can change the minds of the people who make the decisions.

But first, does it matter that companies advertise?

Look at the claims companies make about their products and you find they are misleading and they do not give parents the information they need to decide which formula is best for their baby and how to reduce the risks of formula feeding. See:

In this television advertisement Wyeth says: "For infant nutrition, trust the experts. SMA. We know." Well, I analysed some of Wyeth's information about its SMA soya formula last week and found it did not give parents the unbiased and objective information found from independent sources. See:

Which should come as no surprise. Companies are commercial organisations who have a legal duty to satisfy their shareholders demands, which are for ever increasing profits.

Advertising is not information. It is persuasion.

The fact that this SMA television advertisement tells you virtually nothing about the product proves the point. It is not an accident, of course. Wyeth isn't on the phone to the advertising company that has pocketed £3 million of its money for this campaign saying: "Why didn't you spend 60 seconds going on about what's in our formula?!"

The job of the advertisement is to create those warm, fuzzy feelings and for them to be associated with SMA. Which, if the advertisement is to be believed, is then to be trusted because it understands parents.

It is, of course, twaddle.

What the advertisers understand is how to invoke emotion. What Wyeth understands is how to provide partial, misleading and idealizing information when parents look to it as a trusted source so as to increase sales of its formula.

It claims on the label of its infant formula that it is as 'close as possible to breastmilk' and has 'new improved protein balance' - claims that are illegal under the current law - to create the impression it is virtually the same as breastmilk. According to the Department of Health, 34% of women now believe that formula is the same, or almost the same, as breastfeeding. See the Department of Health study "Myths stop women giving babies the best start in life" at:

It is when we come to the point of explaining why this is a 'myth', to use the Department of Health word, that the warm, fuzzy feelings disappear and some of those who have been using formula may start to become angry and see the sharing of factual information as 'breastfeeding zealots' trying to make parents feel guilty.

Companies try to portray their 'right to advertise' as synonymous with a parents right to information as I noted last month. We should see through this.

SMA has a new slogan on its labels. It is: 'Love the milk you give'. Again, designed to conjure up the warm, fuzzy feelings.

But we are talking about infant health. We are talking about the sole food that a child will receive for the most important months of his or her development outside the womb. Should the decision be based on warm, fuzzy feelings?

Or should it be based on facts?

We talk of people having a right to make an informed decision. That means with accurate and independent information.

On the benefits of breastfeeding.

On how to overcome problems with breastfeeding.

With objective information on different types of formula for parents who decide to use it - not company propaganda that says each brand of formula is better than the competing brands.

And clear warnings that powdered infant formula is not sterile and clear instructions on how to reduce the risks.

That is to benefit parents who use formula.

It is also to try to change a situation where 90% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding before their child was six months old said they had wanted to breastfeed for longer. We believe mothers should be protected and supported so they can breastfeed as long as they wish. At present they are being badly let down.

Baby food companies are not only dishonest with the information they give about their own products, they are dishonest about breastfeeding. Wyeth is part of the Pharmaceutical and Health Care Association of the Philippines (PHAP), which has been criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation for misleading advertisements about breastfeeding during World Breastfeeding Week. See:

Wyeth and its colleagues in the PHAP have taken the Ministry of Health in the Philippines to court to have marketing regulations there struck down.

There has been similar interference in the US. A Congressional investigation is currently underway into how a breastfeeding promotion campaign in 2004 was weakened by the formula industry after meetings with officials. The Washington Post reports:

"The formula industry’s intervention — which did not block the ads but helped change their content — is being scrutinized by Congress in the wake of last month’s testimony by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona that the Bush administration repeatedly allowed political considerations to interfere with his efforts to promote public health."

Wyeth is a major US pharmaceutical company. Whether it was party to this lobby will no doubt come out in the hearings.

The advertisements were going to provide information on scientific findings about the health impact of formula feeding, which increases risks of short and long-term illnesses.

When we talk of risks, that does not mean every child fed formula will suffer ill health - or every breastfed child will never be ill. Just as not every smoker will die of cancer, and some will live past one hundred years of age, there are winners and losers in both groups. But when the groups of formula-fed and breastfed children are compared, the formula-fed children are more likely to be sick, including more likely to suffer serious conditions such as diabetes.

In the end much weakened advertisements were used in the US. The Washington Post records their total failure to have an impact in changing attitudes to breastfeeding:

"the proportion of mothers who breast-fed in the hospital after their babies were born dropped from 70 percent in 2002 to 63.6 percent in 2006, according to statistics collected in Abbott Nutrition’s Ross Mothers Survey, an industry-backed effort that has been measuring breast-feeding rates for more than 30 years."

So the market for formula grew.

Consider that in Sweden 98% of mothers initiate breastfeeding and it brings home that the differences are political and cultural, not biological. Remember 90% of mothers in the UK say they wanted to breastfeed for longer - in Sweden most would probably have had their wish.

The people of the UK have two options, it seems.

Accept formula companies making misleading and idealizing claims about their products and hiding important information about risks, and drown out any desire for accurate and independent information with the warm, fuzzy feelings of the companies advertisements.

Or implement in the UK the World Health Assembly marketing standards that companies have to abide by in many other countries and improve sources of independent information.

If you are for objective and correct information you can support our campaign for strengthened UK legislation and the 7-point-plan of the Breastfeeding Manifesto coalition. See:

If you are using formula and want to know more about our work to make formula feeding safer, see our special campaign page at:

We believe it is a mother's decision how she feeds her child and no-one should attempt to make her feel guilty how she does so. Having the facts reduces the risks and makes it possible to understand the differences between formulas. That, surely, is something to be supported?

If you prefer to just go with warm, fuzzy feelings, then you can ignore all the above and watch the SMA advertisement by clicking here.

Take a look anyway if you haven't seen it, and leave your comments below.


Anonymous said...

I dont quite know what to make of the ad - it definitely seems to be aiming at appealing to men/the father. The women in the ad are passive and not involved and basically look haggard. It looks like it is trying to appeal to "real" people hence is admitting SMA is a failure but we all do it type thing. Also I very much focussed on the feeding cup at the end - did they actually show a packet of formula because by law they have to show that it is follow on milk. I feel it is an ad created by men which is a fault with a lot of advertising anyway. I also feel that generally motherhood is being taken away from women and we seem to only hear about men looking after thie own children on TV and radio. There is more airtime for full time fathers than mothers even. Women looking after their own children just do not figure in the media at all. Hence I would also recommend an organisation called full time mothers to anyone out there who either is or was a full time mother at any point in your childs development or who would like to be or who values looking after your own children for part of the week.

Anonymous said...

you can just tell, if you pause it, that it says follow on milk on the big container, however on the small container I squinted, and all I can see is a blur.

Unknown said...

As you say Mike, the ad is very very clever. The cleverness is multi-layered, not least of which is how it skirts the guidelines on formula advertising to suggest prior formula use whilst pretending to be about follow-on milk.

It's also very British. It's using a film style very reminiscent of British Kitchen Sink dramas, although it has soft focussed it a little to make it modern and accessable to a larger advertising audience. But the iconography of the kitchen sink, the bedroom, the sitting at the old fashioned dressing table, is all quintessential British soap opera territory. A world slightly grimy, slightly ragged and not quite all USA, or Australian, soap opera clean and shiny newness. It's more 'true to life' which is how British TV audiences prefer their drama - with a thin veneer of actuality. Although the aspirational marketing of the product requires it to pitch to the upper end of the spectrum, even this is well done within the framework of it being about everyday families - as it's toys and 'baby sick' that mess up the not quite got there yet feel of the piece. So whilst it's not Perfect Persil Advert Houses, it's just a little short of that advertising ideal. The kitchen isn't quite all matching, the bedroom a bit gloomy in the night, but the living room in the mother in law section, and the garden in the adoration of the madonna without an actual child in her arms, is middle class in its construction. The message is clear here that SMA understands where you're coming from, and where you're hoping to end up, and using SMA is part of that upwardly mobile agenda.

It's also a very clever address to the demographic: first time mothers. Whilst being up front in it's 'new man' appeal, as it's a father speaking, it's all totally about fulfilling the fantasies of the woman. In perfect Mills & Boons cadences, we see the man/husband/father enact a love sonnet to the woman/wife/mother, that treasures her for her domestic skills, still sees her as a vital sexual object as the same time as a mother, defends her against interfering well intentioned mothers in law and gives her emotional space to be 'her own person' whilst he frees her up to be that physically by 'holding the baby' for her.

This part is actually the most disturbing area for me, as it's using the pseudo feminist agenda that's always been used to promote formula, in a subtle and insidious manner. Actually holding the baby in this ad is very problematic for the mother. She's in the night exhausted by her crying baby, she's being criticised by her MiL, she's even covered in baby sick smell when she's fresh and showered and wanting to go out for the evening and doesn't even have the baby with her. Mothering is presented as something that is demeaning and demoralising to her: hence the need for the husband to step in support, encourage and praise her for her efforts. He is rescuing her, by using formula to 'free' her from the constrictions of motherhood. He's being a modern White Knight and needs no pure white steed and shining sword, merely a pure white bottle of formula to slay the dragon that has enslaved her. He can literally take feeding the baby off her hands, and give her a 'break' from overwhelming drudgery.

This message about mothering, and motherhood, is so deeply ingrained in our culture, that most people would look at what I've written and say "So what, all that is true?" Well, it may be true in a formula world, where babies and mothers have to be seperated in order to 'let others have a go at feeding' and to 'give Mum a break' but it doesn't reflect the actuality of my world as a mother, and doesn't reflect that of most mothers I know. Keeping baby beside you in order to breastfeed is easier, less work and far more personally rewarding than handing them over to others whilst you 'escape' to the garden for some 'me time'. Mothering _is_ 'me time' in my world, and I'm heartily sick of the view of it constructed so effortlessly, and so 'naturally' in this ad.

In my world, it's not mothering that takes it out of me - it's having to be all things to all people all the time and do it all in the home to boot. And when I'm tired and drained and fed up and exhausted _by life_, I don't need my husband to take my baby off my hands whilst I run off to the garden to be by myself. I need him to bring me hot cups of tea, empty the washing machine into the tumble dryer and cook dinner whilst I put my feet up and snuggle my baby to my breast and flood myself with joy juice: another ingredient missing from formula.

It's no accident, however, that Eulogising Fantasy Husband doesn't do any of this in the advert, as that would undermine his manly status. Houseworking husbands in adverts have to be cheeky chappies taking the mick slightly, and that would not do here. So he has to stay adoring and loving but manly in his everyday Joe Bloggness, hence the shots of a stubble beard, crinkled gray t-shirts and not quite with-it expressions as he shares the 'burden' of a baby. All beautifully counterpointed by those not quite rugged but oh so manly arms lovingly holding and protecting his tiny baby. Softness and strength... bring me the Kleenex, oh no, wait.. bring me the Andrex...

Promoting the seperation of the mother and baby, in order to 'help' the mother out, is such a stalwart of the formula marketing machine, that it is easy to miss how potent that construction is in this advert.
Shock and horror at how comprehensively they're trumpeting formula use can actually mask _why_ this advert is so hideous.

For the hard marketing reality is that adverts don't sell products: they sell lifestyles.

It's the constructed lifestyle in this advert that is so offensive, and so damaging. For it's a lifestyle that requires formula to make good the damage a baby does to a woman's life. It peddles the ultimate formula message in the West - that women _need_ formula to save them from their babies. That formula fulfills some sort of vital support role in the life of the average mother. That breastfeeding is too hard, too difficult, too restricting. Too old fashioned. That modern women _need_ a substitute to enable them to live fulfilled lives as both an individual and as a mother. After all, the entire up front focal point of the advert is that Dad can also do some of the feeding to 'help Mum out'.

This ad does break Code - quite clearly in its construction of Dad giving night feeds - but it is also offensive in the message it sends out about how women cannot manage the simple act of feeding their baby normally. How they need an artificial product to make mothering a success. How they need others to take on 'the load' in order to thrive themselves. That they should, on some level, be grateful that such 'rescue' is available.

Formula feeding is a risk activity. The white powder in the can comes with such delights as salmonella - at no extra cost - and its unsuitability for the newborn stomach puts babies at risk of serious gut inflammation, infection and life long allergies. And that's before you get to the increased health risks from lack of human milk. Formula marketing not only denies these factual truths in its construction of happy healthy babies, thriving on an expensive and inferior artificial product, it suggests that mothers need this intervention to remain true to themselves. In order to sell their product, they have to put themselves between the mother and the baby: they have to create a need for their product. This advert is very clear in its construction of what the problem is: motherhood. In the SMA world, woman simpy aren't up to being mothers without SMA products. They cannot possibly juggle the demands the world makes on them, as woman, wives and mothers, without formula.

'Clever' just doesn't do justice to this ad. Here's hoping the makers manage some sleep... despite all that night feeding.

tracy said...

I have complained to the ASA and swiftly received a reply stating they are already investigating and my complaint has been added to the file.

I would love to see the background info on the making of this advert, all the sneaky psychological tricks they have employed. Very clever but leaves me fuming. I actually read online someone asking for the words in the advert to write in a card for some new parents!

Anonymous said...

I haven't been able to see the ad, but what idiot doesn't know that breast feeding is better than bottle feeding? But what about those who can't breastfeed? Everything you have said will make those mums who want the best for their babies feel guilty!! (myself included - it's bad enough having to listen to breastfeeding mums gloat!) I don't need people like you telling me that I can't get close to my baby because I'm not breastfeeding. I get the warm and fuzzies watching my baby being bottle fed and watching her grow healthy and strong.
AND you can no way compare bottle feeding to smoking - ridiculous!!
Most bottlefeeding parents just want some information about the best formula, Give us some credit fot being able to make up our own minds on which formula to use!!!!

Mike Brady said...

The comment above asks: "What idiot doesn't know that breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding." I really don't think that type of language is constructive, but as the original blog states:

According to the Department of Health, 34% of women now believe that formula is the same, or almost the same, as breastfeeding. See the Department of Health study "Myths stop women giving babies the best start in life".

These people are not idiots, they are midsled.

The SMA advertisement contains ZERO useful information on deciding which formula to use. The SMA website that parents are encouraged to visit contains information that contradicts that of the Food Standards Agency and the Chief Medical Officer.

Companies are not reliable sources of information on infant feeding or on formula. Independent, accurate sources of information exist and our campaign aims to stop that being undermined, to protect breastfeeding and to protect babies fed on formula.

As I has said repeatedly on this blog, no-one should try to make a mother feel guilty about how she feeds her child. It is her decision. We work to protect her right, and the rights of health workers and others, to receive accurate, independent information.

Anyone who uses formula for whatever reason would want to support this work, I would hope. We have a specific campaign for making formula feeding safer. See:

Anonymous said...

lets not forget why women who don't breastfeed feel guilty : because they are not giving their baby the best, most appropriate food, and because they know it. Not because anyone *makes* them feel guilty.
I do not blame bottle feeding mothers: i blame a system that lets down half of all the woman who want to breastfeed.

Anonymous said...

Since all of you are clearly obsessed with the idea that formula feeding is bad, bad, bad - perhaps I should mention that for some mothers, it's the only alternative. My wife tried to breastfeed and in the end had to resort to bottle feeding. We didn't want to, and we didn't like it. But it was the only option we had. So for all you mums who sneer at the poor ignorant women formula-feeding their babies - good for you. We had no choice - and guess what? Our baby is a year old, healthy and a joy. So stick that in your narrow-minded obsessive pipe and smoke it.

Mike Brady said...

In response to the anonymous comment of 7 July, Baby Milk Action works to protect breastfeeding and to protect babies fed on formula.

As we say repeatedly, it is a mother's decision how to feed her child and no-one should make her feel guilty about it. It is unfortunate if you have had a different experience.

What we do call for is the right of mothers, fathers, carers and health workers to have accurate, objective information on infant feeding, not company propaganda, which is the opposite, as the documentary evidence shows.

For Baby Milk Action's campaign for safer formula and to reduce the price of what is one of the most marked up products on the supermarket shelves, see our website.