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:
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.
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.