Formula milk companies are paying social media platforms and influencers as part of their digital marketing techniques designed to influence the decisions new families make on how to feed their babies, the World Health Organisation has found.
In a new report titled ‘Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breast-milk substitutes’, the WHO noted that the formula milk industry, — valued at some $55 billion — has been gaining direct access to pregnant women and mothers at some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives.
The WHO revealed that formula milk companies buy or collect personal information and send personalized promotions to newly-pregnant women and mothers using tools like paid social media influencers, mobile applications, promotions and contests, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’ and advice forums or services
The report is based on research carried out between January and June 2021 during which around 4 million social media posts on infant feeding were analyzed and sampled. Through a commercial social listening platform, it was found that such posts reached around 2.47 billion people and earned more than 12 million likes, shares or comments.
The report also relied on a multi-country study that showed how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.
The WHO said that ‘pervasive marketing has led to an increase in the purchase of breast-milk substitutes and therefore dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively as recommended by WHO.’
Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Nutrition and Food Safety department, underlined that the promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago.
“The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped,” Dr Francesco said.
Despite clear evidence that exclusive and continued breastfeeding is a key determinant of improved lifelong health for children, women and communities, far too few children are breastfed as recommended. If current formula milk marketing strategies continue, that proportion could fall still further, boosting companies’ profits, the WHO said.
While calling on the baby food industry to end exploitative formula milk marketing, the WHO has asked governments to protect new children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to curtail any form of promotion of formula milk products.