Monday, December 17, 2007

ASA ruling on Wyeth's SMA television advertisement

This week we are anticipating the ruling of the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on the Wyeth/SMA television advertisement promoting its formula brand name and website. If past experience is anything to go by, the advertising industry's self-regulatory body will take a pro-industry line in breach of its mandate, once again exposing the government’s failure to properly regulate the marketing of breastmilk substitutes.

I have a quote ready for when the ASA ruling comes out if action is not taken to censure Wyeth.

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action, said:

“If the ASA really believes that parents should be basing their decisions on how to feed a child during the most important phase of its development outside the womb on the heart-tugging, greeting-card sentiments of Wyeth's SMA advertisement then they have seriously failed in their responsibility to protect the public. We will consider taking the case to the ASA ombudsman or to judicial review. This is not an argument over soap powder or chocolate bars, it is about life-long issues of health. The ASA has already demonstrated the regulatory system for breastmilk substitutes in the UK is not fit for purpose and proposed changes to the law expected this week are unlikely to make much difference as the government has so far ignored the recommendations of its own advisors, health worker bodies and other health experts and is following the industry line.”

You can view the advertisement via my blog entry at:

Our experience with the ASA is instead of examining such advertisements with the test of whether they are ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ it applies a narrow test of legality based on its own interpretation of the law.

If it did conduct a proper test it would evaluate advertisements against the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981 and subsequent, relevant Resolutions. Companies are called on to abide by the provisions independently of government measures and all make public statements of support for the Code. So you would expect ‘decent, honest and truthful’ advertising to comply. Unfortunately the ASA does not see it that way and in protracted correspondence with me has basically told me to go away and change the UK law if I don’t like its position. Well, I have been with those trying.

The Code prohibits the advertising of breastmilk substitutes and bans companies from seeking direct or indirect contact with pregnant women and mothers of infants and young children. Companies are limited to providing scientific and factual information to health workers, who are given responsibility for providing information on infant feeding.

The advertisement is a clear violation. It promotes a breastmilk substitute (SMA Progress), it promotes a brand name used for the full range of products (including infant formula - and research commissioned by the National Childbirth Trust demonstrates that much of the general public associates the logo with infant formula or milks for young babies), it directs people to a website that promotes the full range of products and it encourages parents to trust the company for information on infant nutrition.

The ASA should have slapped a ban on it as soon as it appeared and invoked its powers to require Wyeth/SMA to submit advertising for pre-authorisation as similar breaches by the company are common place.

On past experience, however, the ASA takes the view that as in the UK only infant formula advertising is illegal, that is all it will consider. Follow-on formula advertising is permitted by the current UK law - and will be permitted by a proposed revised version of the law we are expecting to be presented to Parliament any day. The ASA dismisses the argument that such advertisements are de facto infant formula advertisements, and so illegal, if at some point there is a reference, however fleeting, to follow-on formula. I fear it will take the same line with this advertisement.

But the advertisement is even worse in some respects than others we have seen. It contains no information about the product, idealising or otherwise. It is an emotional declaration of love from a man for his partner, promising to love her through all she has to experience with bringing up their child, including the smell of baby sick, and undertaking to help with night feeds. It is solely aimed to invoke an emotional response to the SMA brand, a poor basis for making a decision on infant nutrition. You can read an interesting analysis of the psychology of the approach at:

However, other information from the company is no better for making an informed decision on infant feeding. If you go to the SMA website as the advertisment encourages you to do there are offers of a free DVD and entreaties to call the telephone 'careline' and join the SMA baby club. There is advertising for infant formula – illegal under the UK law, though this has yet to be enforced. And the advice on the site is misleading. For example, I have analysed previously how the SMA information on soya formula contradicts that of the Food Standards Agency and Chief Medical Officer. Wyeth is abusing the right of parents who use formula to accurate and objective information.

If you call the telephone careline, you find that the company does not admit that powdered formula is not sterile and may contain intrinsic contamination with harmful bacteria. When I conducted a spot check, the information was there was only a risk of contamination after the formula is opened. Parents have a right to know the true situation to better understand why the steps needed to reduce risks are important.

The company has issued labels with health claims that are not on the permitted list of claims, suggesting it has 'new improved protein balance' and is 'easily digested'. For more on the label see:

Wyeth/SMA is not a trustworthy source of information on infant nutrition. Indeed, it already has a criminal conviction for a ‘cynical and delibrate breach of the regulations’. See:

As I mentioned, the ASA has said if we want it to judge advertisement against the World Health Assembly marketing code, which companies are called on to abide by independently of any other measures under Article 11.3 of the Code, then we have to change the UK law. Well, the government has just consulted on the law. UK health worker organisations and mother support groups in the Baby Feeding Law Group made a submission called: “Protecting breastfeeding – Protecting babies fed on formula” calling for the Code and Resolutions to be implemented in the UK. This was endorsed by the broader Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition. The government’s own Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and LACORS (the umbrella body for Trading Standards officers, responsible for enforcing the law) called for stronger measures too, including a ban on advertising of follow-on milks.

The government has rejected these recommendations and is shortly to put its proposed regulations before Parliament. The Royal Colleges have written to the Minister for Public Health calling for a re-think and recommending that companies should not be allowed to target parents. They argue that the independent and accurate information that is available and their members are responsible for providing to parents should not be contradicted and undermined by the companies.

Unfortunately executives at Wyeth/SMA may well end up rubbing their hands with glee. They will most likely be able to carry on churning out this guff if the ASA betrays parents and babies as it has done in the past.

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