Wyeth promotes SMA formula on UK television

We are getting emails and monitoring forms about the new Wyeth advertisement for SMA formula now running on UK television. You can report where and when you see the advertisement to us using the forms on the website we operate for the Baby Feeding Law Group. It also tells you how to register a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards should you wish to do so. See the monitoring section of:

I have to say the advertisement is very clever. It is a declaration of love from a man for his partner, a love undimmed by the changes to their relationship brought about by the arrival of their new child. A love strengthened, in fact. The sentiment, in isolation, may well make you feel warm and fuzzy or even bring a tear of recognition to your eye. It runs for 60 seconds and I'll tell you later how you can see it on line if you haven't caught it yet.

"I promise..." the father says in the advertisement and lists what he will and will not do, including doing his fair share of night feeding.

"Understanding parents. Understanding babies. For infant nutrition, trust the experts. SMA. We know."

Despite the young age of the baby shown, the reference to night feeding and the promotion of the SMA brand used for the range of breastmilk substitutes, the UK authorities are unlikely to do anything about this advertisement because our law is so lousy.

There is a shot right at the end of the film of SMA Progress, which is a follow-on milk. Still a breastmilk substitute (though Wyeth likes to suggest otherwise), but not covered by the ban on advertising with the UK law. We've had the ridiculous situation in the past where enforcement officers couldn't tell themselves whether it was infant formula or follow-on formula being advertised. Infant formula is illegal. Follow-on formula is legal. The experts couldn't tell without asking the company, but parents are expected by the law to draw the distinction. See the report on this case in our Update newsletter.

Article 11.3 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981 as a minimum requirement for all countries, states:

Independently of any other measures taken for implementation of this Code, manufacturers and distributors of products within the scope of this Code should regard themselves as responsible for monitoring their marketing practices according to the principles and aim of this Code, and for taking steps to ensure that their conduct at every level conforms to them.

So even though our law is lousy, Wyeth knows it should not be running this advertisement. But it does not care. Nor, to date, does the UK Government. Five years ago the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Government to implement the Code in UK legislation. It still has not done so. A draft put out for a consultation that will end this month does not implement the Code either. It will allow advertising to continue.

Unless we can change the minds of the people who make the decisions.

But first, does it matter that companies advertise?

Look at the claims companies make about their products and you find they are misleading and they do not give parents the information they need to decide which formula is best for their baby and how to reduce the risks of formula feeding. See:

In this television advertisement Wyeth says: "For infant nutrition, trust the experts. SMA. We know." Well, I analysed some of Wyeth's information about its SMA soya formula last week and found it did not give parents the unbiased and objective information found from independent sources. See:

Which should come as no surprise. Companies are commercial organisations who have a legal duty to satisfy their shareholders demands, which are for ever increasing profits.

Advertising is not information. It is persuasion.

The fact that this SMA television advertisement tells you virtually nothing about the product proves the point. It is not an accident, of course. Wyeth isn't on the phone to the advertising company that has pocketed £3 million of its money for this campaign saying: "Why didn't you spend 60 seconds going on about what's in our formula?!"

The job of the advertisement is to create those warm, fuzzy feelings and for them to be associated with SMA. Which, if the advertisement is to be believed, is then to be trusted because it understands parents.

It is, of course, twaddle.

What the advertisers understand is how to invoke emotion. What Wyeth understands is how to provide partial, misleading and idealizing information when parents look to it as a trusted source so as to increase sales of its formula.

It claims on the label of its infant formula that it is as 'close as possible to breastmilk' and has 'new improved protein balance' - claims that are illegal under the current law - to create the impression it is virtually the same as breastmilk. According to the Department of Health, 34% of women now believe that formula is the same, or almost the same, as breastfeeding. See the Department of Health study "Myths stop women giving babies the best start in life" at:

It is when we come to the point of explaining why this is a 'myth', to use the Department of Health word, that the warm, fuzzy feelings disappear and some of those who have been using formula may start to become angry and see the sharing of factual information as 'breastfeeding zealots' trying to make parents feel guilty.

Companies try to portray their 'right to advertise' as synonymous with a parents right to information as I noted last month. We should see through this.

SMA has a new slogan on its labels. It is: 'Love the milk you give'. Again, designed to conjure up the warm, fuzzy feelings.

But we are talking about infant health. We are talking about the sole food that a child will receive for the most important months of his or her development outside the womb. Should the decision be based on warm, fuzzy feelings?

Or should it be based on facts?

We talk of people having a right to make an informed decision. That means with accurate and independent information.

On the benefits of breastfeeding.

On how to overcome problems with breastfeeding.

With objective information on different types of formula for parents who decide to use it - not company propaganda that says each brand of formula is better than the competing brands.

And clear warnings that powdered infant formula is not sterile and clear instructions on how to reduce the risks.

That is to benefit parents who use formula.

It is also to try to change a situation where 90% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding before their child was six months old said they had wanted to breastfeed for longer. We believe mothers should be protected and supported so they can breastfeed as long as they wish. At present they are being badly let down.

Baby food companies are not only dishonest with the information they give about their own products, they are dishonest about breastfeeding. Wyeth is part of the Pharmaceutical and Health Care Association of the Philippines (PHAP), which has been criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation for misleading advertisements about breastfeeding during World Breastfeeding Week. See:

Wyeth and its colleagues in the PHAP have taken the Ministry of Health in the Philippines to court to have marketing regulations there struck down.

There has been similar interference in the US. A Congressional investigation is currently underway into how a breastfeeding promotion campaign in 2004 was weakened by the formula industry after meetings with officials. The Washington Post reports:

"The formula industry’s intervention — which did not block the ads but helped change their content — is being scrutinized by Congress in the wake of last month’s testimony by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona that the Bush administration repeatedly allowed political considerations to interfere with his efforts to promote public health."

Wyeth is a major US pharmaceutical company. Whether it was party to this lobby will no doubt come out in the hearings.

The advertisements were going to provide information on scientific findings about the health impact of formula feeding, which increases risks of short and long-term illnesses.

When we talk of risks, that does not mean every child fed formula will suffer ill health - or every breastfed child will never be ill. Just as not every smoker will die of cancer, and some will live past one hundred years of age, there are winners and losers in both groups. But when the groups of formula-fed and breastfed children are compared, the formula-fed children are more likely to be sick, including more likely to suffer serious conditions such as diabetes.

In the end much weakened advertisements were used in the US. The Washington Post records their total failure to have an impact in changing attitudes to breastfeeding:

"the proportion of mothers who breast-fed in the hospital after their babies were born dropped from 70 percent in 2002 to 63.6 percent in 2006, according to statistics collected in Abbott Nutrition’s Ross Mothers Survey, an industry-backed effort that has been measuring breast-feeding rates for more than 30 years."

So the market for formula grew.

Consider that in Sweden 98% of mothers initiate breastfeeding and it brings home that the differences are political and cultural, not biological. Remember 90% of mothers in the UK say they wanted to breastfeed for longer - in Sweden most would probably have had their wish.

The people of the UK have two options, it seems.

Accept formula companies making misleading and idealizing claims about their products and hiding important information about risks, and drown out any desire for accurate and independent information with the warm, fuzzy feelings of the companies advertisements.

Or implement in the UK the World Health Assembly marketing standards that companies have to abide by in many other countries and improve sources of independent information.

If you are for objective and correct information you can support our campaign for strengthened UK legislation and the 7-point-plan of the Breastfeeding Manifesto coalition. See:

If you are using formula and want to know more about our work to make formula feeding safer, see our special campaign page at:

We believe it is a mother's decision how she feeds her child and no-one should attempt to make her feel guilty how she does so. Having the facts reduces the risks and makes it possible to understand the differences between formulas. That, surely, is something to be supported?

If you prefer to just go with warm, fuzzy feelings, then you can ignore all the above and watch the SMA advertisement by clicking here.

Take a look anyway if you haven't seen it, and leave your comments below.

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