WHO calls for an end to ‘insidious’ online marketing of infant formula |

The study found that companies pay social media platforms and influencers to get direct access to pregnant women and mothers at the most vulnerable moments of their lives, through personalized content that is often not recognized as advertising.

Methods used include apps, virtual support groups or “kids’ clubs”, promotions and competitions, and consultation forums or services.

Sales increase

This pervasive marketing leads to increased purchases of breast milk substitutes, WHO said, thus discouraging mothers from exclusively breastfeeding, as recommended by the UN agency.

“Commercial formula milk promotion should have been discontinued decades ago” said Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.

“The fact that formula companies are now using even more powerful and insidious marketing methods to increase their sales is unforgivable and must be stopped.”

90 posts per day

Titled “The Scale and Impact of Digital Marketing Strategies to Promote Breast-milk Substitutes”, the report is the second in a series and follows initial research, published in February on how formula marketing influences our infant feeding decisions.

It summarizes the results of a new study that selected and analyzed four million social media posts about child feeding published between January and June 2021 using a commercial social media listening platform.

The posts reached nearly 2.5 billion people and garnered over 12 million likes, shares or comments.

According to the study, formula milk producers post content to their social media accounts about 90 times a day, reaching 229 million users, three times the number of people reached by breastfeeding awareness messages from non-commercial accounts.

Misleading and undermining

The authors also collected data from public opinion surveys of online public communications and individual country reports on studies that track advertising for breast-milk substitutes.

They also drew on a recent international study of the experience of mothers and healthcare professionals in formula marketing.

Research has shown how misleading marketing reinforces myths about breastfeeding and breast milk and undermines women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully.

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WHO urged baby food manufacturers end the exploitative marketing of formula milkand governments protect children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to stop any advertising or other promotion of dairy products.

The agency said the proliferation of global digital marketing of infant formula blatantly violates the historic international code for the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, adopted 40 years ago.

The agreement is designed to protect the public and mothers from the aggressive marketing practices of baby food manufacturers that negatively affect breastfeeding practices.

The WHO said that the fact that these forms of digital marketing may elude the attention of national monitoring and health authorities shows that new approaches to regulation and enforcement of the code are needed.

Despite clear evidence that exclusive and sustained breastfeeding is key to improving the health of children, women and society throughout life, too few children are breastfed as recommended.

The WHO has warned that this share could fall even further if current formula marketing strategies continue.

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