Musings of a Marfan Mom

Breastfeeding, Babble, and Business

| 24 Comments

A little over a week ago one of my favorite bloggers, Annie of PhD in Parenting, wrote an article about Babble.com’s partnership with Similac formula company. Babble.com is a website geared towards mothers. They have a collection of breastfeeding articles, and made the recent decision for Similac to sponsor this section of their website. Ads covered the page, mostly ads suggesting that women who are having breastfeeding problems contact Similac’s “breastfeeding helpline,” staffed by “feeding experts.”

Annie encouraged her readers to get involved, to speak up. She posted several suggestions for ways to do this, one of which was to contact the CEO of Babble. To me, this seemed the most effective way to bring about change.

You might ask why I care whether a formula company sponsors a breastfeeding portion of a website. I care, because I want women to have a choice in how they feed their children. I care, because women aren’t being given proper information on nursing, which sabotages the attempts of women who want to breastfeed. I care because, believe it or not, formula advertising has been shown over and over again to have a negative effect on breastfeeding relationships. Formula advertising not only affects women’s choices in how to feed their children, whether they are conscious of it or not, but it results in drastically higher costs for families who choose to feed their children formula (who do you think ends up paying for the “free” samples given at the hospital and sent in the mail, as well as all those commercials and Internet ads?). That affects their choice as well.

This is NOT about breastfeeding vs formula feeding. My long-time readers will remember that I myself nursed M. for about 7 months, then switched to formula so I could try a new heart medication not compatible with breastfeeding. This is about speaking up about what I viewed as an unethical business arrangement that interferes with a woman’s ability to make an informed decision in a very important matter. To me, the conflict of interest in a formula company offering breastfeeding advice is very clear. Also, Similac’s “feeding experts” are not, in fact, experts. An expert would be an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). IBCLCs have an ethical code that prevents them from working with formula companies. Similac’s advisors could be anyone; “lactation consultant” is not a protected term like “doctor” or “nurse” is, unfortunately.

And so, I wrote Rufus, the CEO of Babble.com. I didn’t expect a reply. I implored him to reconsider his company’s partnership with Similac. I explained how these formula advertisements were a violation of the WHO Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes, and suggested that if Babble was really interested in helping women learn about breastfeeding that they link to expert sites, like Kellymom.com or La Leche League.

He wrote me back. I was impressed that he’d taken the time, but he immediately told me that we’d need to “agree to disagree.” I felt that shut down further discussion on the issue, though he did tell me to feel free to email him if I had any further thoughts on making the website better. I thought on my response for a few days, taking notice that the Similac ads had at least been moved to the page on supplementing with formula, and this is what I wrote:

Mr. Griscom,
Thank you for taking the time to write me back!  I did notice that the Similac ads were moved to just the page about supplementing with formula and I hope that is something you plan to continue.  I also hope that you’ll consider rewording some of your breastfeeding materials.  For instance, “Breastfeeding is a time-tested and efficient biological process, one that can not only provide a baby with all the nutrition she needs but also transfer the mother’s immunities and confer — according to various studies, all of which have been criticized for lacking double-blind status or for confusing correlation and causation…” is a conflicting statement.  That’s basically saying it’s best, only not really.  And there are plenty of studies that show breastfeeding does provide all the nutrition a baby needs…honestly I don’t know of anyone who would really argue that due to all the research.

Thank you again for responding, and for the change you’ve already made.
Sincerely,
Maya

I received the following reply:

Maya — thanks for your note.
That is simply a statement of fact as researched by our non-biased writer. I don’t think anyone could read that paragraph and not conclude that it is supportive of breastfeeding – unless, perhaps, they are lactation activists who are bot looking for the full story but rather simply an unequivocal mandate to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is better, no one argues that point. It’s also true that the studies are not perfect, and its also true that formula has gotten better. I hope the leech league community is rational enough to see that these things are not in conflict.

Beat regards, Rufus
Typos by iPhone

Personally, I don’t see how anyone COULD conclude that that statement is supportive of breastfeeding (& I chose it because it’s one that he cited as being so in a comment on Annie’s page), but that’s beside the point. What was upsetting to me was how he characterized me. A lactation activist not looking for the full story but rather an unequivocal mandate to breastfeed? What is the full story? If I’ve somehow misunderstood something, by all means explain it to me, but it doesn’t seem as though there was anything to misunderstand (unless all the money Similac was paying for that ad placement was getting funneled to breastfeeding education programs or something?). And so because I disagreed with the objectivity of his website, I must be looking for a mandate that every woman breastfeed?! Finally, what does La Leche League have to do with my email? I’m not a member. All I did was suggest their site as a better resource than a formula company!

It’s not great marketing to answer complaints by telling your consumers that THEY are the ones with the problem.

Frankly, I’m disappointed with Babble and the response that I received. I will not be returning to their website. But, there are some lessons that can be learned from this experience.

Companies: Don’t underestimate the powers of social media. Twitter, Facebook, blogs…they’re all ways to quickly and efficiently spread the word of both admirable and poor business practices. Also, you don’t have to agree with all of your consumers, it’s impossible to, but politeness will go a long way in keeping them as customers. Being defensive or evasive is worse than not engaging your customers at all.

Consumers: Don’t be afraid to take a stand when you see an unethical practice. If we don’t speak up, who will? We have the power to make real change. Also, don’t go to parenting websites for breastfeeding or medical advice. If you’ve got breastfeeding questions, go to reputable websites like Kellymom.com or La Leche League, or search for a lactation consultant in your area.

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24 Comments

  1. “leech league” what an asshat

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    rebekah Reply:

    it was an auto correct from the phone… im sure you’ve done the same. And trust me I in no way agree with the guy, but that was just a freudian phone slip.

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  2. great post Maya! I’d never even heard of babble.com… and probably won’t be looking for them to get bf advice 😉

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  3. What a jerk. Also, where is the professionalism? Setting aside the disrespectful tone, since when do CEOs send typo-laden e-mails to their customers? A little respect, please.

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    marfmom Reply:

    I agree with you on both counts, particularly given the nature of the La Leche League typo!

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    Arwyn Reply:

    I have a very hard time believing that was a typo at all.

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    rebekah Reply:

    I actually disagree. most execs reply on their phone and I have seen (and USE) the signature as well. He did respond personally to you, which is a pretty big deal, he didn’t send a form letter, and he was on his phone, prone to typos and random auto correct. Otherwise I wholeheartedly agree with your post.

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    marfmom Reply:

    Given the nature of the typo, assuming that it was (because I know my husband’s phone makes a ton), he should have done a quick read-through and changed it. I know that the signature is automatic on the iphone, or so I’ve been told (I don’t have a smart phone), but it’s a pretty inflammatory typo, you know? (Especially given the overall tone of the email)

    marfmom Reply:

    Really though, “Leech League” aside, my issue was more with the tone of the email and how companies address their customers. I think the whole thing smacks of disdain.

  4. I agree that he likely used his phone, and that led to typos. Or, at least, I’m choosing to believe that.

    But that doesn’t actually address the issue. The issue is that the breastfeeding information is not good. I just took a quick read-through and was quite unimpressed by it.

    When the scientific consensus is so clear, I don’t see how you can call a writer who calls that into question unbiased. Especially in the context of providing breastfeeding information. Here’s the thing – someone reading that guide is presumably looking for support and information to be successful, not for a debate about scientific community. So why even go there and debate the merits? But I’m part of the “leech league” community, so I suppose I am not to be taken seriously.

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    Amber Reply:

    Gah! And now I made my own typo, and I’m not even on my phone. I meant to say, “not for a debate about scientific methodology.”

    Typos, they can happen to anyone.

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  5. I was appalled when I saw this use that same line as an example of how “pro-breastfeeding” the website is, as I read it and think “they don’t think the studies are worth a damn.”

    As for the typo, maybe it was unintentional… and maybe executives should not be replying to the public via typo-prone cell phones when it reflects on them and their company. That is a highly offensive typo, whether intentional or not, and anyone representing a company or website should not allow such things to happen.

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  6. I have an iPhone. Out of curiosity, I opened up a new email and typed in Leche and it did auto replace it with “leech”. So while the CEO was disdainful in tone, and should have gone back over and done a quick read-through and correction, the wording was definitely due to auto correction.

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    marfmom Reply:

    Thanks! That is good to know, Nancy!

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    Rebekah Reply:

    Absolutely agree..like I said the rest of your post (actually your post didn’t mention the typo) I agree with completely. Just didn’t like the route it was taking in the early comments. The issue is the company’s stance and lack of acknowleding breastfeeding as the biological norm. :)

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  7. Just wanted to point out that Certified Lactation Counselors, at least those certified by The Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice like me DO have a Code of Ethics we must adhere to. The WHO code is incorporated into our code. ( http://www.talpp.org/forms/Candidate%20Handbook.pdf scroll to heading 12 )

    I’m not arguing your point btw. But I hope I’m correct in assuming that the counselors/consultants staffing the phonelines are certified by some governing body and are bound by a code of ethics as well.

    Wether they fully follow their code may be up for debate.

    On to your actual point in this post, While a personal reply was a step in the right direction and typos do happen, there is no way the statement refered to can be considered supportive to breastfeeding. If they left off the last half, everything after “according to various studies…”. Perhaps replacing the babble about studies with something along the lines of “Despite the clear health advantages to mothers and babies confered by breastfeeding, some mothers and babies will need or choose to give supplementary or complementary formula feedings. Some mothers and babies may need or choose full formula feedings. ” No conflict there.

    If no one argues the facts wrt breastfeeding supiriority then why argue? Why make reference to anomalous studies?

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    marfmom Reply:

    Thanks for your addition! I’ve heard that there are 2 hour online courses people can take to become “lactation consultants” and wonder if those have codes of ethics? I’ve looked into CLC courses, which are a little out of my budget now and fairly time intensive (at least a week, if I’m remembering correctly). I would assume advice coming from people who have completed a course like this would be sound, even if they’re not IBCLCs. However, as the article I linked to pointed out, a mom off the street can apparently call herself a lactation consultant, and it’s (I’ve been told) not uncommon for hospitals to just send a few RNs to a brief online course or hand them some books and then call them lactation consultants, which could very well be the case with Similac, given the IBCLC and CLC codes. But, like you said, perhaps they are full trained and certified and just not fully following their code.

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  8. Fantastic article. Love that you took the time to write the company.

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  9. Well written, Maya. I support the decision of families to choose whatever feeding choice works for them, but as you state women/babies are often not given a fair chance because they do not receive proper education/support, and as such the breastfeeding relationship starts out with strikes against it!

    Thank you for taking the time to speak up and address this issue. I have to believe that one day soon we can change this backward system that we are forced to operate in…I really don’t want to die a lactivist…who’s going to save the whales? :)

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  10. Regarding Mr. Griscom comments:
    While unfortunate, his typo was just a typo. I don’t have an iphone, but my phone makes the same mistake. I find it irritating and insulting. However, he took the time to write you back. He should have taken the time to proofread before hitting send. The real unfortunate part to his reply was his attitude. He was so dismissive of you and your concerns. 1) No part of that breastfeeding guide: the writer to the Similac sponsorship and ads were unbiased. 2) Having a problem with the way their information was inaccurately and unethically presented doesn’t mean all women HAVE to breastfeed. 3) He is a assuming that because you are in dissent you are a part of La Leche League (seen my some unfairly as radically and shaming mothers to breastfeed) and by further insulting you and that group by suggesting they are not usually rational thinking.

    Regarding the CLC vs. IBCLC issue:
    CLCs accredited by the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice are bound by a very similar almost identical code of ethics (http://www.talpp.org/forms/Candidate%20Handbook.pdf) as IBCLCs. They are required to adhere to the WHO code and avoid conflicts of interest which working for formula sponsored breastfeeding lines would include. CLCs are also required to refer a client to an IBCLC if the issue is outside of their scope of practice. Although, I would trust a CLC the same if not more in some cases than an IBCLC, as many IBCLCs work in hospitals (of which only 4% are actually baby-friendly) and formula companies take them to Red Lobster and less than stellar information and inappropriate feeding options can be provided. That being said, the term lactation _______ is used loosely. There are lactation educators, lactation counselors, and lactation consultants (not all of whom are internationally board certified) all with varying numbers of education. It can be very confusing to find reliable and trusted information. I would say moms should go with their gut. La Leche League leaders while accredited through LLL are not credentialed per say, but provide great help. So to be a true help to breastfeeding mom one doesn’t necessarily need all those fancy letters behind their name, but they probably shouldn’t work for the company that truly wants breastfeeding moms to fail either.

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  11. His reply is so very condescending and presumptuous. The quote he chose to defend the piece is ridiculous. Any journalist or writer would know that this poorly-written sentences goes through great verbal gymnastics to emphasize the negatives.

    It would have been more objective, more on-point, and also just plain better to write something like: “While critics point to the lack of double-blind studies and the absence of proof of direct causation, most medical professionals agree that there is a clear correlation between breastfeeding and…”

    After all, this is supposed to be a breastfeeding guide, right? Not a formula feeding guide or even an infant feeding guide. A BREASTfeeding guide.

    Those CRAZY lactivists…expecting a breastfeeding guide to support mothers who breastfeed. What WILL they be demanding next?

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  12. Thank you for taking the time to get a response, even if it was so unsatisfactory. It smacks of sexism.

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  13. Is it wrong that I crack up every time I read the words Lactation Consultant?

    Way to stick it to the man Maya. ANGRY MOMMY BLOGGERS….ASSEMBLEEEEEEEEE

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  14. GoFoCiod for you for writing to him! I’m glad he responded but I’m sad about his tone. No doubt formula companies with breastfeeding hotlines is a conflict of interest but I can’t help but feel (or hope) Babble is somehow in their minds trying to help. I don’t think deep down they want to discourage people from breastfeeding, though unknowingly and sadly, through their efforts that may happen.

    Do breastfeeding companies or organizations buy ad space? Perhaps they should buy space and buy out Simlac’s space. Lol.

    I hear breastfeeding commercials on the radio now. Woop!

    Great email and post mama! I’m proud! :)

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