How infant formula makers are saturating moms’ social media

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LONDON — Stephanie Labarta, 31, was six months pregnant when she first noticed an occasional infant formula advert on Instagram and Facebook. Now, a year later, she sees ads three or four times a day, usually for Reckitt Benckiser’s Enfamil or Nestlé’s Gerber Good Start.

“Gerber actually showed up this morning on my feed – it started with a contest to submit your smiling baby and then it spread out into the different types of formulas and what they have available,” Labarta said, senior analyst at a non-profit organization in New York.

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Shortly after the influx of social media ads began, Labarta also received an unexpected care package from an online registry that included a sample of formula.

Such marketing represents what the World Health Organization describes in a report released Friday as “inappropriate promotion of breastmilk substitutes” via digital media.

Friday’s report builds on WHO research released in February that pointed to broader “aggressive” marketing tactics across the industry, which are expected to reach more than $54 billion in formula sales this year. according to Euromonitor.

“Breastmilk substitute companies buy direct access to pregnant women and mothers in their most vulnerable moments from social media platforms and influencers,” WHO researchers said in the report. “They use apps, baby clubs, counseling services and online registrations to collect personal information and send personalized promotions of breastmilk substitutes to mothers.”

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In Western countries, what Labarta experienced is “very common practice”, Laurence Grummer-Strawn, one of the report’s authors, told Reuters. “They use digital technology to get the addresses of these women; (to) identify that they are pregnant; to get them on the lists and the like for that kind of distribution.

The WHO, which has closely monitored industry marketing practices since the 1970s and created a non-legally binding code of conduct for companies in 1981, recommends exclusive breastfeeding for newborns in the possible, as the healthiest option. Certainly, for many parents, breastfeeding is not possible and formula milk is essential. Companies like Reckitt, Danone and Nestlé encourage all parents to breastfeed and have their own strict guidelines detailing what their marketing reps can or cannot do or say to mothers.

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Danone’s global head of digital transformation, Mabel Lu, said while it’s true that women are “constantly impacted by targeted content” online, the problem is largely due to algorithms on media platforms. social media automatically displaying advertisements they deem relevant to users. .

Reckitt said it provides parents with essential information on the best nutrition for their babies and complies with all local marketing regulations, which are often stricter than the WHO code.

Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, has said it will stop promoting infant formula for babies under six months of age worldwide from the end of 2022. Nestlé is not currently promoting infant formula for babies under 12 months in 163 countries. . Some, including Nestlé, say they cannot control the actions of independent “bad actors”.

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“Anyone in China can buy infant formula in Australia and resell it on the internet independently,” Marie Chantal Messier, global head of food and industrial affairs at Nestlé, told Reuters. “Often people don’t know the WHO code and so it’s hard for us to engage.”

“They make a fair point that there are multiple actors that are involved in this,” said WHO’s Grummer-Strawn. But it’s unfair to “absolve them of liability…they pay the marketers, they sponsor the various entities that share misinformation,” he added.


For Friday’s report, the WHO analyzed data from 4 million social media posts about infant feeding over a six-month period using a commercial social listening platform. The posts reached 2.47 billion people and generated more than 12 million likes, shares or comments. The 264 breast-milk substitute brand accounts monitored for WHO research posted content about 90 times a day and reached 229 million users.

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In the United States alone, the amount the infant formula industry spent on advertising on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter nearly doubled to $3.82 million in 2021 from 2017, according to Nielsen. Companies spent more using digital marketing to sell baby formula last year than on any other type of advertising, the data shows.

“Two or three years ago, less than 5% of their budgets were spent on influencer marketing, now it could be between 25% and 50% of their budget,” said Maria Sipka, co-founder of the agency. Linqia influencer marketing, who has worked on more than 20 campaigns for infant nutrition brands, including Nestlé’s Gerber Good Start #forumlaforhappiness campaign.

Sipka said the real value of an influencer campaign is that it shouldn’t “feel like it’s a promotion.”

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In a Linqia customer file seen by Reuters, influential mothers were told by an unnamed food company that its infant formula is the only one that contains “a probiotic clinically proven to reduce crying by up to 50% in breastfed infants with colic” which is “ideal for formula-fed babies.

Moms were told to “begin your blog story by sharing your excitement and enthusiasm for your partnership” with the brand, share their story of how it comforted their baby, and then ask their followers to share their thoughts on the brand.

“I think it’s okay to explain that products are science-based and show healthcare providers in lab coats, as long as it’s within your code of conduct and there’s real substance to it. what is said, that you can actually prove it through the data,” said a former Reckitt Benckiser executive.

Some, however, are more skeptical of the ads, saying their increasing frequency is actively distracting mothers from breastfeeding.

“It’s prevalent on Instagram and Facebook, it’s all over my stories,” said New York-based lactation consultant Rebecca Four. “I noticed the increase. Does it annoy us? Frustrate us? Sure.”

(Reporting by Richa Naidu; Additional reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Vanessa O’Connor and Lisa Shumaker)



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