Formula industry enlists PR agencies to defend marketing tactics

June 2007 – The formula industry has enlisted two international PR firms to defend hospital-based marketing of infant formula.

The two sites, babyfeedingchoice.org and Momsfeedingfreedom.com, were registered in early March, just a week after The Wall Street Journal reported that more and more hospitals are abandoning hospital-based formula marketing. Both sites are funded by the International Formula Council.

Babyfeedingchoice.org was registered by Kellen Communications, an international PR firm whose “success stories” include responding to the Alar apple scare and promoting the health benefits of margarine, a source of trans-fats.

Babyfeedingchoice.org links to MomsFeedingFreedom.com, describing it as a grass-roots site launched by a concerned mother in Massachusetts. In fact, MomsFeedingFreedom.com is registered to E Nilsson LLC, an international web consulting firm whose clients include Romney for President and Pfizer. The mother is Kate Kahn, a corporate communications strategist based in Boston.

Both sites use classic formula company strategies, paying lip service to benefits of breastfeeding even as they promote formula. When breastfeeding is mentioned, it’s a chore and a bother. For example, MomsFeedingFreedom.com asks visitors to share personal stories, such as advice from “A sister who filled you in on the age-old remedy of ace bandages to ease aching breasts.” The language deliberately describes breastfeeding as primitive, messy, and painful.

When it comes to talking about formula marketing, host Kate Kahn dismisses scientific evidence that hospital-based marketing as “ridiculous,” arguing that women are too smart to be swayed by a gift bag.

Online readers aren’t buying the argument. Posting in the site’s online discussion group, one visitor writes, “One meme of these formula-industry shills is that ‘women are too smart’ to be swayed by advertising. Isn’t it ironic that this tired and deeply flawed rhetoric is being touted on a website that is nothing more than an extension of the formula industry’s advertising/lobbying efforts?”

The industry’s public relations campaign reflects the powerful influence of hospital-based formula marketing on consumer behavior. As a Ross Pediatrics sales manual states, “Never underestimate the importance of nurses. If they are sold and serviced properly, they can be strong allies. A nurse who supports Ross is like an extra salesperson.” (Abbott Labs v. Segura, 1995).

Formula companies count on hospital-based marketing to establish brand loyalty and undermine breastfeeding. “The data are clear: when hospitals distribute formula samples, women are less likely to breastfeed successfully,” says Dr. Alison Stuebe, an obstetrician and women’s health researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA.

As one blog visitor writes, “Name one other hospital ward where the nurses promote a product and send you home with a gift bag. You don’t go in for lung cancer treatment and walk out with a carton of cigarettes. You don’t go in for obesity surgery and walk out with a box of donuts. If breastfeeding is best, why should a mother leave the hospital with baby junk food?”

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