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Do We Need Corporations to Empower Us?

Old news, new victims?

We've heard it all before. Corporations want to tell us that they get us. They know what we are thinking, what we are feeling, what we need. And, of course, they have the solution. This year, with its StrongMoms Empower campaign and StrongMoms Empower Summit (happening tomorrow in New York City), Similac (an infant formula brand) is trying to position itself as a leader in creating a more supportive and less judgmental environment for moms.

Do you think you've heard this before? Possibly, you've heard it from other moms in the social media community who have been preaching it and practicing it for years. Possibly, you've heard it from Best for Babes. Their credo, which they wrote about on their site in 2009 (yes, 4 years before Similac decided to co-opt it) is:

Our Credo:

ALL moms deserve to make a truly informed feeding decision and to be cheered on, coached and celebrated without pressure, judgment or guilt.

ALL breastfeeding moms deserve to achieve their personal breastfeeding goals without being undermined by cultural & institutional “Booby Traps “.

You'll notice Similac co-opted the first part of this, while ignoring the second part. Why is that? It is because they are a big part of the cultural and institutional "booby traps" that Best for Babes wrote about and that I've written about numerous times on this site (see societal barriers to breastfeeding or why do moms quit breastfeeding?). Of course formula companies don't want the moms who use their products to be subject to pressure, judgment or guilt (especially if that makes people afraid to use their products), because they only want there to be warm fuzzy feelings as it relates to their product. But make no mistake, they are not here to support your breastfeeding goals. They are here to slowly undermine your breastfeeding goals with deceptive advertising and unsolicited samples sent to the homes of breastfeeding moms.

It's Just More 'Mompaganda'

Similac doesn't really care about supporting moms. They want moms to think that they care about them. They want moms to feel good about using their product, not guilty. They want moms to get 'warm fuzzies' when they think about Similac, instead of having negative feelings of shame, guilt, or judgment. That isn't horrible, except that their true motivation is to increase sales, not to support moms.

In her guest post on my blog, Carly Stasko wrote about Mompaganda. She wrote:

The logic behind the motherhood brand is simple. Most moms care about the health, happiness and future of their children, and so a “mom-approved” company appears to embrace the same parental values by association. Mothers are seen to be discerning and cautious and safety-oriented. So by extension we conclude, even unconsciously, that a product advocated by other moms must have undergone some kind of vetting.


I’ve learned from my early days as a mom that the best guidance comes from parents on the same learning curve as me. Marketing that activates the “mom-brand” to sell products exploit the sense of trust and solidarity that arises naturally between parents.

Similac empowers moms. Moms speak positively about Similac to other moms who trust them. Other moms buy into it. It is a simple concept.

Writing today on the Broad Side about the Similac campaign, Kimberly Seals Allers (who writes Mocha Manual) wrote that When Big Pharma 'Strong' Arms Moms, We All Lose:

Please forgive me for being suspect. It is certainly true that there is way too much pressure on mothers today, and we all could take a proverbial “chill pill” on the mommy-bashing. But when a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical giant (Similac is owned by Abbott Laboratories) plows millions of dollars into telling mothers to be “strong” and “non-judgmental,” I think I’m rightfully engaged in a side-eye glance.

Selling women messages that sound good on the surface but actually undermine them has been a corporate tactic since at least the 1950s. We aren’t really being supported to be strong moms–whatever that means anyway — we are being sold the idea of “strong” as a marketing tool for corporate interests. There’s a big difference and all parents should take note of the dangerous undercurrents.

What I typically find most insulting is that these corporations are counting on moms not knowing better. That we are so weary from the pressures of motherhood, that we will hang on to any messaging that appears to be a “release valve” without delving one centimeter beneath the surface to find the real facts.

Apparently “strong” does not mean savvy.

But a lot of moms won't see it that way. Instead of being insulted by the way that corporations are trying to co-opt them to do marketing for free, they'll be insulted by the fact that someone objects to the campaign. They'll side with the corporation instead of siding with their fellow moms. How's that for coming full circle on the supportive environment?

Support That Isn't Trying to Profit From You

Struck by the similarities between what Similac is trying to say in its campaign and what Best for Babes has been saying for years, I asked Bettina Forbes and Danielle Rigg, the founders of Best for Babes, to comment on it. They told me:

The problem with the StrongMoms Empower campaign is that it continues to throw mothers to the wolves when it comes to overcoming the Booby Traps(R) that undermine them every day. It keeps the onus on isolated mothers to jump the barbed wire, instead of putting pressure on the 360 degree world around them to demand that mothers get the support and care they need and deserve. Moms already know what is best for themselves and their families; what moms don't have are enough hospitals, pediatricians, ob-gyns, family members, friends, health professionals, employers and welcoming public spaces to help them succeed without pressure, judgment or guilt.

The C.A.R.E.-WHO Alliance is the first alliance of businesses that have pledged to truly protect healthy infant feeding by (C) cheering on moms, (A) accepting them without judgment, pressure and guilt, (R) referring them to independently certified and qualified feeding specialists, providing (E) evidence-based information, and upholding the WHO-CODE. The Alliance does not give lip service to supporting and "empowering" moms while undermining their decisions and efforts at the same time. The C.A.R.E.-WHO Alliance rewards businesses and professionals who step up to the plate to help moms make informed feeding decisions and to help them achieve their personal goals, whatever those are.

The C.A.R.E.-WHO Alliance supports ALL moms. While an estimated 85% (CDC) of expecting moms want to breastfeed, not all moms want to or can breastfeed, and should be respected for their decision. Sometimes the barriers to breastfeeding are so overwhelming that it is simply not a feasible option. Mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed deserve better access to donor milk from an HMBANA human milk bank (currently cost is prohibitive for all but the most fragile infants), they deserve information on informal milk sharing, and they deserve information on the proper preparation of infant formula.

Expecting and new moms need the C.A.R.E.-WHO Alliance in the same way that they need to know which car seats are safe, who are the best pediatricians, and which blogs are trustworthy. What they don't need is a sham badge or pat on the back from the very companies who are largely responsible for, and profiting from, their misery; companies that have systematically spread misinformation and set up a gauntlet of Booby Traps(R) everywhere mothers turn. If you believe that ALL parents deserve the best information on infant feeding, and deserve to be cheered on, coached and celebrated without pressure, judgment or guilt, make your voice heard! If you believe that every parent deserves to achieve their personal feeding goals without being Booby-Trapped(R), whether that goal is to breastfeed for 2 days, 2 months, or 2 years; and/or pump breastmilk, feed donor milk, or feed infant formula, then join us to grow the C.A.R.E.-WHO alliance! We don't have millions in marketing budgets, but we are a core of compassionate and passionate advocates who believe in mothers and babies' rights to health and happiness.

Where will you stand? With a company with a huge marketing budget and shareholders who are highly vested in getting you on board? Or with a nonprofit that truly wants to help moms meet their own goals? I know which one will make me stronger.

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Reader Comments (10)

Excellent post, as always. Thank you for bringing Similac's strong arm tactics to light. The C.A.R.E.-WHO Alliance sounds valuable and much needed.

May 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKari

Great post! Interesting how the corporations steal the language - 'empower', 'supportive' and even the idea of a 'pledge' that people can sign up to. They are really trying to manipulate us...again. Many thanks for showing them in their true colours. The cigarette ad is very telling. If anyone wants to find out more, the Baby Milk Action website had loads of information www.babymilkaction.org and they have a Facebook page too, and there's the Friends of the WHO Code Facebook page full of interesting people doing useful campaigns.

May 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRachel O'Leary

Thank you Annie for being my voice of reason...I just came from Mom 2.0 Summit in Laguna with many corporate sponsors so sometimes I get out of balance and swayed by corporate marketing.
I am currently working with Corporate Accountability encouraging hospitals not to renew their contracts with McDonalds Corporation and I agree with formula companies having an agenda when they sponsor mom educational materials. Your posts always challenge me to stay the course for moms making authentically good choices.

May 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLorette Lavine

I would love to know who these mom bloggers are and what's motivating them (besides money) to participate in such a summit? Has anyone seen a published list?

May 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

I understand your mistrust of corporate initiatives. I really do. Having worked in marketing, the onus behind some of these campaigns is truly for reputation points. But I can also say that not everything behind the corporate world is evil. I met with some of the moms behind the Strong Moms Empower campaign when I attended BlissDom. I recorded a video to support the campaign that is TRULY about not judging mother. I chose to share a story of when I passed judgment on others. But I could have easily shared a story of women passing judgment on me.

When it comes to breastfeeding vs. formula, there IS a lot of judgment. I think this campaign makes sense for Similac and if you don't support the corporate sponsor, simply ignore the campaign.

You might be interested in my personal perspective on how I felt as a breastfeeding mom. http://andnobodytoldme.com/2011/01/that-breast-is-best-and-formula-is-okay-too/

May 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFadra

I don't see anything wrong with this campaign - because for once, Similac is appealing to their demographic - FORMULA FEEDERS. They are responding to the fact that we DO feel judged and guilty. I frankly don't care if they are out for my money - as a formula feeder, it has to go to someone, and I'd rather it go to the company that is marketing specifically to me rather than the one who is constantly marketing to breastfeeding moms. Similac has done the latter in the past and I've spoken out against it. I'm thrilled with this campaign, so I'm speaking out in favor of it. In fact I wrote to them and asked to be a part of it (unpaid, of course, b/c god forbid I ever take money from a formula company).

As for B4B, I can tell you that according to my community, they have not lived up to their "credo". In fact, most of what I've seen from this organization contributes to the mom-shaming and formula hating. I'm sorry if Similac co-opted their wording; that's a copyright issue and should be dealt with. But as for the sentiment? It would be nice to have an organization with money behind it calling shenanigans on the false advertising of breastfeeding orgs who say that they support all moms. These orgs only support moms who are subscribing to their beliefs. We- those in the "formula is not the devil" camp - do not feel supported or accepted.

I think if this campaign came out of anyone but a formula company, people would be celebrating it. So I think it's more an issue of "anything a formula company does is 100% evil" and not that there is anything wrong, inherently, with a campaign advocating for less judgment and bullying between moms. They don't even approach the issue of breastfeeding, so I'm not sure how this is abusing WHO Code (which the US doesn't adhere to, anyway).

Maybe, just maybe, those on the "other" side of this debate don't understand how hurtful the bottlefeeding judgments can be, as they are typically the ones perpetuating them, however unintentionally. Can you just let us have this campaign, if we are verbalizing that we appreciate it? How is it harming your cause, really?

You may have caught this already, Annie, but

(Looks like this coincides with a new Similac product - a "supplement" for breastfeeding moms.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJuliette

Fearless Formula Feeder:

I didn't realize that the campaign was aimed at formula feeding moms. I think perhaps they were the proposed beneficiary of it (less judgment), but it seemed it was aimed at everyone (i.e. we should all not be judging each other).

For me, I don't think it is an issue of formula companies can't do anything right. I think it is an issue of corporations with ulterior motives can't do anything right. I don't think it would be a surprise to anyone to hear that I feel the same way about healthy eating campaigns from McDonald's or Coca Cola or that I environmental sustainability campaigns from Nestle Waters.

May 13, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I have a deep skepticism of the profit motives of corporations too. And I rolled my eyes when I first first heard about StrongMoms and this initiative. But on my site and others, I have been listening to women who don't care that this message comes from a corporation. It speaks to some women. They're tired of the snarky comments about the decisions that women make when they decide to use formula. And, yes, the campaign is aimed at formula feeding women. Just because it is a message that is backed by a corporate entity does not make it wrong. There are lots of profit-making companies that make money off of the "needs" of breastfeeding moms. (I bought hundreds of dollars of expensive breastfeeding pillows, covers, clothing, etc., etc.) So, I get what you're saying and we should be very skeptical, of course. But in this in case I am not sure why it's wrong to sponsor a message of refusing to judge others' feeding choices.

May 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Smock

Thank you for this. I grilled a few women at the Strong Moms Empower booth at the BlissDom conference for a long time--I wanted to know what this had to do with Similac. Nothing, they said, except the funds. Then why put the brand on it?

They were working, so I tried to be as open and kind as possible. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was being left unsaid, though. The focus at the booth at the conference was on sharing stories. The stories weren't going to end up in an ad, ok... (I asked a bunch of times in lots of way.) Until I read this, I didn't get that sharing stories is fine and great, but where was the money for real, lasting change? They were focusing on interpersonal interactions. That seemed appropriate for the BlissDom setting. BUT I missed that the campaign as a whole was leaving out the larger context of those interactions. Thank you for the calm tone and real sources! This has helped me make sense of my experience!

May 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne-Marie

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