The WHO Finds Formula Companies Are Targeting Parents Through Social Media

A World Health Organization report says formula companies target families. Birth advocate and Black Breastfeeding Week co-founder Kimberly Seals Allers says this especially impacts Black parents.

African father preparing baby bottle in the kitchen
Photo: Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that formula milk companies have used "exploitative" measures to persuade parents to buy formula online when they're "most vulnerable." The report says milk substitute companies used apps, baby clubs and advice services, and other covert forms of advertising to collect personal information.

The report, "Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breastmilk substitutes," found that despite regulations preventing the inappropriate promotion of breastmilk substitutes, formula companies have doubled down in the digital age.

"Formula milk 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," the WHO report said. "The global formula milk industry, valued at some US $55 billion, is targeting new mothers with personalized social media content that is often not recognized as advertising."

According to the report, which analyzed 4 million social media posts about infant feeding, formula milk companies used what the WHO calls "insidious" marketing practices to collect new and expecting parents' information to send them personalized formula promotions.

The organization says the research, including evidence compiled from reports and a multi-country study on people's experiences with formula milk marketing, shows "how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women's confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully."

Kimberly Seals Allers, author of The Big Let Down, founder of the Irth app, and cofounder of Black Breastfeeding Week says formula companies' persistent targeting of Black communities is a social justice issue with deep roots.

"Black people need to understand that they are being targeted and have historically been targeted by infant formula companies," says Seals Allers. She says that formula companies have always used the likenesses of Black people to increase profit, mentioning examples like Pet Milk who made millions from ads campaigns of the Fultz Quadruplets.

A study in Pediatrics found Black mothers are nine times as likely to be given formula than white mothers. They also receive less lactation support, encouragement, and training on how to breastfeed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports Black infants in neonatal intensive care units have less access to parents' milk or donor milk, another alternative to formula. It also found that hospitals in areas with a Black population greater than 12.2 percent were less likely to implement breastfeeding-friendly procedures like rooming-in infants and helping parents initiate breastfeeding early on.

Black infants are breastfed less often compared to the national average, according to CDC. The CDC says unsupportive work policies like a lack of parental leave, and unsupportive hospital practices and policies are key reasons people stop breastfeeding, along with concerns about latching, infant nutrition, and weight. Seals Allers says there will be families who choose to formula feed. But structural barriers like lack of access to paternal leave or accommodations like break or pump rooms and stereotypes about Black women and mothers can remove feeding choices for Black families.

The World Health Organization has issued an official call for manufacturers and distributors of commercial milk to end exploitative marketing. They've also asked national governments to monitor and enforce laws to reduce unethical marketing tactics and asked health professionals and investors to use their influence to address conflicts of interests and demand these companies do better.

In Black communities, systemic racism and messages from many directions give parents many things to consider when making feeding choices. What's best for Black infants and parents should matter.

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