Being a woman of reproductive age, who shares pictures of my kids and parenting stuff on social media, the algorithms-that-be at Facebook make sure I have lots of 'relevant' advertising pop up in my feed.
One ad which has come up a lot lately is from an infant formula manufacturer, inviting me to "visit our Mums Like You hub for recipes, articles, and redeem a free sample of Toddler Milk Drink".
Well golly, aren't they just so darn nice! Mums like me love recipes, articles, and free stuff. Even if that free stuff is a product created by formula manufacturers in order to circumvent The International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes (the WHO Code) in countries where it's illegal to directly advertise infant formula. I decided to click on over and check it out.
If this 'Mums Like You' hub were a house, I'd want to live in it - the light is flattering, the colour scheme is gorgeous, and I'm having serious wallpaper envy. At Mums Like You I can find healthy kids recipes, information about fussy eaters, articles and advice about pregnancy and parenting.
Next to an article about their 'infant nutrition range' I see that I can 'Ask a lactation consultant' (I wonder which product from the Infant Nutrition range the company Lactation Consultant recommends?). There's no clarification on whether this person is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), or how they intend to provide lactation support with "general information for self-limiting conditions... not intended to replace consultations with your healthcare professional".
What I've clicked into is part of the new frontier of the marketing of breastmilk substitutes - the creation of online communities. On Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and their own websites, formula companies pose as a friend, connecting mums together with the bond of mutual product consumption. These companies know what it's like to be a Mum Like You! They know how hard your feeding journey has been. They wanted you to breastfeed, they even printed 'breast is best' on their packaging and paid a lactation consultant to help you out. They're here for you and they promise not to judge.
This online presence pushes the legal and ethical limits of formula marketing to the max. The (voluntary and industry-regulated) WHO code was written before the age of social media and the blogosphere, and although some of the marketing actions do clearly violate the code, many others are simply not covered. But why would companies think twice about the Code if they can get mothers to do their dirty work for them - sponsored reviews, user-generated content, or sharing ads which go viral globally, including in countries which would not allow the placement of those ads by the company themselves.
A decline in birth rates and increase in breastfeeding means that women are not just a target market - we are also competition. Every breastfeeding mother is business lost, and every act of peer breastfeeding support threatens the profit margin. But new mothers, particularly those struggling with breastfeeding difficulties, are vulnerable. Many report feeling isolated or afraid of being judged by other women. What better opportunity for formula marketers to slip in and replace real-world relationships by manufacturing a sense of community which can only be found by embracing the use of their product.
These companies are not sisterhood. Their online communities are not the new village. They are manipulative, abusive, coercive, exploitative, misogynist steamrollers. They do not give a toss about women or our breastfeeding goals. They don't want us to trust each other - they want us to trust their brand. And the only thing our babies are worth to them is £10 per can.
MP Alison Thewliss' proposal to curb aggressive formula marketing practices, including full implementation of the WHO Code, has the potential to create authentically safe space for families as they begin life with their new baby. Formula marketers are not an objective source of infant feeding information and support - tightening regulations sends the message that we as a society find it unacceptable for pregnant women and new mothers to be treated as a target market. Because while formula can be lovingly substituted for breastmilk, a formula company expecting us to substitute spin for human connection is a line-crossing insult. Mums like us deserve far better.
A version of this post first appeared on my blog, Full Cream.