Advertising is a tricky subject. People claim it is necessary to inform us about the choices we have as consumers. People say that putting restrictions on it goes against the principles of free speech. People claim that we are smart and we can see past the the marketing spin. To say otherwise, is to call people stupid.
Because, c'mon, who really believed that Nutella was a part of a nutritious breakfast? You didn't, did you? We're all smart enough to see past that and read the labels. So the mom who did believe it, she must be the one who is stupid. Smart people don't fall for ads. So despite the German courts ruling that Nutella's nutrition claims are misleading, the problem isn't so much with the manipulative ads, but with stupid people who believe them. If we could get rid stupid people, manipulative ads would totally be okay.
The advertisers are smart though. They know that ads work. They know that either smart people do fall for ads often enough or that there are enough stupid people out there to make them worthwhile. They don't need a study to prove that. They have years and years of first hand experience. They know that everyone has moments of weakness and gaps in knowledge and they know that those are opportunities to influence.
But some people may need a study to convince them of this. Some people believe that formula ads don't influence a woman's choice of how to feed her baby. The ads simply inform mothers who have chosen formula about the products that are available. That might, arguably, be useful to some women if the claims made by formula companies were accurate (but the Canadian government says they are not). But that isn't the extent of the problem. You see, formula ads do actually influence how a mother chooses to feed her baby.
A study by six researchers from the World Health Organization, that was published in the Social Science and Medicine Journal, found that both formula ads and doctors suggestions to use formula did influence mothers feeding choices:
According to their findings, 59.1 percent of the mothers recalled an infant formula advertisement message and one-sixth reported a doctor recommended using formula. Those who recalled an ad message were twice as likely to feed their babies infant formula, while whose advised by a doctor where four times as likely to do so.
Twice as likely. Yes, moms who saw a formula ad were twice as likely to feed their babies formula. And with regards to the doctors, when Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art on CBC Radio 1, suggested that more doctors need to tell moms to try formula, I responded over at Best for Babes with a post called Is "Try Formula" the Answer to Breastfeeding Guilt, where I concluded that:
There is a big gaping hole between “Thou Shalt Breastfeed” and “Try Formula”. The gaping hole needs to be filled with affordable, accessible, quality breastfeeding support. Instead, that hole is too frequently filled with pressure and guilt, from society and from within.
I don’t think that mothers need to be told that they must breastfeed and I also don’t think that mothers need to be told that they must try formula. What would happen if, instead of feeling the need to TELL mothers what to, health professionals simply asked: “How can I support you in your feeding decision?” From there, the conversation needs to combine compassion and knowledge, supporting the mother while also answering her questions and educating her without judgement or pressure.
Back to the formula ads. Yes, infant formula ads on articles and websites about infant feeding bother me. Not because I think women are stupid, but because I know that humans are human. They are vulnerable and emotional and get drawn into things that are shiny and pretty and helpful and easy and supposedly good for us. I know this because I am human too and while I resisted the allure of formula ads, there are other ads that do draw me in and cause me to make purchases that I wish I hadn't . But maybe I'm just weak or stupid.
So for the weak or stupid people out there (or for the humans), I would support a legislated ban of infant formula advertising as recommended by the World Health Organization. But in the absence of a law, I would also support publishers and broadcasters who are willing to take a stand and not allow infant formula advertising or, at the very least, not allow infant formula advertising on websites and publications that are aimed specifically at the mothers of babies. Not because formula is evil, but because moms who have chosen to breastfeed deserve a fighting chance and shouldn't be bombarded with booby traps every time they turn around.
Image credit: M J M on flickr