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BojanaMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 05-Aug-20 17:14:27

Guest post: “Formula companies in Southeast Asia have changed their advertising tactics during the coronavirus outbreak”

In this post for World Breastfeeding Week, Rosa Furneaux, global health reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, shares the results of her investigation into multinational baby formula companies’ campaigns in Southeast Asia

Rosa Furneaux

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Posted on: Wed 05-Aug-20 17:14:25

(30 comments )

Lead photo

"The companies have changed their advertising tactics during the coronavirus outbreak."

Multinational baby formula companies, such as Nestlé and Danone, are using social media to market to consumers in Southeast Asia in ways that raise serious concerns that they may violate World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

The companies have changed their advertising tactics during the coronavirus outbreak and are also using mothers to create online marketing material.

I started reporting on this issue after WHO said that social media advertising was a “cause of growing concern” when it came to formula.

WHO introduced an international ethical code for formula marketing in 1981, after Nestlé’s advertising practices in developing countries attracted international attention and made it subject to a boycott campaign. A 2016 resolution clarified that “growing-up milks” for children under the age of 36 months fall under the code’s scope.

The WHO code prohibits formula marketing to the public, but its guidelines are not legally binding. While 70 per cent of WHO member states have enacted some legal measures against formula marketing, only 25 countries have adopted legislation that substantially aligns with the code.

There is no suggestion that either company has broken any Indonesian laws, but public health experts have expressed concerns that their actions go against the spirit of the WHO code.

During the ongoing pandemic, Nestlé's Indonesian formula brand, Dancow, ran ads featuring straplines such as “Bunda, Lindungi Si Buah Hati” (“Mother, protect your sweetheart!”) next to images of children drinking formula. The company has also used its hashtag #DancowLindungi (#DancowProtects) frequently on its posts since March 2020.

The code bars companies from seeking direct or indirect contact with pregnant women and mothers, but, during the pandemic, Dancow has hosted webinars discussing infant nutrition and live-streamed an event called ParentFest, billed as an online festival to support mothers “learning from home.”

Some experts predict that, without adequate legislation and enforcement, formula companies will continue to flout WHO guidelines


Danone’s SGM brand has done something similar during lockdown, encouraging consumers to post questions to health experts on Facebook. Contrary to the code, Danone advertised its customer careline on Facebook and urged mothers to call if they had questions about their child’s growth and development.

WHO states that companies should not market any formula product for children under the age of three. But Nestlé’s recent Facebook ads in Indonesia show products for children aged one and above. Nestlé said that all of its communications comply with Indonesian law, “where advertisement of products for children above one year old is allowed.”

Indonesian breastfeeding advocate, Nia Umar, told me that companies promote freely. She believes it’s violating the code, “but it’s not against the law. They know the gap. And since the gap is very big and very wide, they use it to promote unethically.”

The companies have also used mothers to create online marketing material. In 2014, Danone’s SGM band launched its “mombassador” scheme. Each year, young women are encouraged to become brand ambassadors. Judged in part on their social media presence, successful applicants are encouraged to host parenting events, some at government-run health centres, and publish posts promoting SGM online.

Women who have taken part in the programme told us that they were offered classes on nutrition and child development, editing photos, and writing social media content. Danone said that the initiative was purely informational and did not promote any baby formula products.

Danone claims to have more than 400 mombassadors across Indonesia. The company does not cover the cost of transportation to participants’ classes and does not pay the mothers directly for their branded social media posts.

“I am only a middle-school graduate,” said one mother. “The most important thing is knowledge, right? For me, paying for transportation [to classes] is not really a big deal. Going to school, you have to pay tuition. The [mombassador] programme is free and useful.”

David Clark, a nutrition specialist at Unicef, told me the women were being “manipulated.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that mommy bloggers and brand ambassadors are involved in a form of promotion that is prohibited by the Code,” he said.

Health experts say that aggressive advertising can cause mothers to move to formula unnecessarily. WHO recommends that, where possible, babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months and receive continued breastfeeding up to the age of two and beyond.

In response to our investigation, Nestlé said, “The WHO code and subsequent WHA (World Health Assembly) resolutions are recommendations for member states to translate into local legislation. This is why we apply WHO recommendations as implemented in law by member states.”

Both Nestlé and Danone told the Bureau that they take any allegation of non-compliance seriously and have robust systems to encourage people to report any concerns around marketing practices.

Some experts predict that, without adequate legislation and enforcement, formula companies will continue to flout WHO guidelines. “They’re in this business to make money and to sell products,” David Clark told me. “But we have to have a regulatory framework in place that stops them from exploiting and manipulating the public.”

You can read our full investigation here.

Rosa Furneaux will respond to some comments and questions in this discussion next week.

By Rosa Furneaux

Twitter: @rosafurneaux

Thistly Wed 05-Aug-20 20:38:14

So are we boycotting Danone then?

DinosaurOfFire Wed 05-Aug-20 22:32:17

@Thistly I was also wondering that. Already boycotting Nestle due to their baby milk advertising methods and also their wider company ethics.

ChristmasKitties Wed 05-Aug-20 22:46:47

Not sure I agree with the calling out of companies for advertising baby formula- how a mother chooses to feed her baby is entirely up to her. There is something about this that leaves a bad taste for me, it’s suggesting that advertising formula to those women in those countries is so terrible because these women couldn’t possibly know any better, doesn’t sit right with me.

Gratitude14 Thu 06-Aug-20 03:26:24

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Dinocan Thu 06-Aug-20 07:46:44

Thanks, interesting post. Will read the article. I have also read that formula companies were capitalising on the Covid pandemic by suggesting that mothers shouldn’t breastfeed because of risk of infecting their babies with Covid. This is an issue that really upsets me and leads to so many extra deaths and illness for babies. Unfortunately people seem to think it’s a problem that was left in the 80s.

Spam88 Thu 06-Aug-20 08:56:11

@ChristmasKitties I don't get that from it at all.

The "protect your baby" stuff is REALLY not okay.

I hadn't realised that WHO says formula for under 3s shouldn't be advertised. Very interesting that the U.K. doesn't follow that!

Thistly Thu 06-Aug-20 10:15:34

Me neither Spam. I think it’s possible to project a 1st world sensibility about ‘right to choose’ onto a completely different scenario in countries where poverty can mean a very widespread lack of education, access to information and a much more precarious way of life.

Sashawest50 Thu 06-Aug-20 11:12:04

While at college in the 1980s a well known formula provider received higher sales in the UK..As they had donated lots of formula to developing countries..what a grand gesture..forgetting to inform the recipients that they would still be mixing with the undrinkable ..contaminated water in most of those countries..to donate formula.save money on the admin charges of some so called volunteers and advertising and provide ready made bottles of formula with clean..hygienic water .sure in this day and age scientists are able to have similar to a UHT..long life milk..Ask yourself would you mix up free formula from a possibly not clean well..tap and feed it to your baby..NO..me neither !

roxfox Thu 06-Aug-20 12:11:36

Spam88

*@ChristmasKitties* I don't get that from it at all.

The "protect your baby" stuff is REALLY not okay.

I hadn't realised that WHO says formula for under 3s shouldn't be advertised. Very interesting that the U.K. doesn't follow that!


That's what I was just thinking! I'm always seeing ads for follow on milk. Should we not be focusing on that too??

CostaCosta Thu 06-Aug-20 18:38:12

I find this very interesting. I enjoyed reading Professor Amy Brown's book why starting solids matters. Great history of how formula came about.

StillWeRise Thu 06-Aug-20 19:59:41

you are right, the advertising of follow on milks is in breach of the code and this has been brought to their attention! but it's all about brand awareness they know they can't advertise genuine infant formula in the UK (we have SOME protections) but 'follow on' milks- a completely unnecessary product can be advertised with branding/packaging that echoes that of formula so in effect they are advertising formula.

am completely up for boycotting Danone especially since they don't make kitkats.

MindfulBear Fri 07-Aug-20 01:05:33

I will add Danone to my nestle list o mr brands to boycott for unethical marketing

KitKatastrophe Fri 07-Aug-20 07:34:53

ChristmasKitties

Not sure I agree with the calling out of companies for advertising baby formula- how a mother chooses to feed her baby is entirely up to her. There is something about this that leaves a bad taste for me, it’s suggesting that advertising formula to those women in those countries is so terrible because these women couldn’t possibly know any better, doesn’t sit right with me.

Is it actually a "choice" if you're given incorrect information? Its certainly not an informed choice.
Formula can be an actively dangerous choice in some countries where there is not enough access to clean water or electricity in order to wash and sterelise bottles.

Catmanduu Fri 07-Aug-20 08:07:31

Formula fed here.
But think is shocking.
My children were never at risk of bottles being made up with water that isn’t clean enough to drink.
Nor was I under any illusion that the formula was superior to breast milk. I fed them this was because
1. Had to
2. Formula still a safe option for them

The fact that a mother who’s breastfeeding well could actually be persuaded to stop is disgraceful. Especially when, unlike in the uk, it could endanger the life of her child to stop.

StonersPotPalace Fri 07-Aug-20 08:10:20

Follow on milk doesn't breach the code.

Spam88 Fri 07-Aug-20 09:20:44

@StonersPotPalace follow on mills are normally targeted at 6 months plus, and the code says formula for under 3s shouldn't be advertised from my reading of the OP?

SpillTheTeaa Fri 07-Aug-20 23:27:04

I didn't breastfeed because I didn't produce any milk but to suggest breast feeding mothers should stop and switch to formula is just as disgraceful as telling a woman that formula feeding is wrong.

Mypathtriedtokillme Sat 08-Aug-20 00:49:39

In a part of the world who already has a huge problem of child stunting this is disgusting but not anything new in the region.

It’s the parents can’t actually afford to formula feed but are pressure into it with campaigns like this as well as high pressure sales tactics or free starter cans by “baby health” nurses (who receive kick back payments)
Since the parents can’t afford it as formula is a expensive luxury item they feed half measures and water it down or add things like rice water to stretch out feeds. Child gets less over all nutrition which causes restricted growth.

CodenameLevonelle Sat 08-Aug-20 01:15:26

@Catmanduu you have hit the nail well and truly on the head!
I boycott Nestle and I am very grateful for the recent development of own brand Kit Kat's! I'll need to research Danone. But seriously, the whole formula issue in countries without the sanitation and stability of countries such as ours is a disgrace. I read somewhere that countries likely to have regular natural disasters are also vulnerable as parents otherwise able to manage formula costs and preparation are suddenly without means to do so. Even in this country during times of flooding parents have had some close shaves accessing formula.

greenshopberwick Sat 08-Aug-20 10:00:09

Just to say there has been a global campaign against Nestle's malpractice with formula milk promotiom since the mid (?) seventies. This is nothing new. Unfortunately, Nestle seem invulnerable. They, Danone and others are simply too big, too global to ever be held to account. All anyone can do is just stop buying their products - and they own lots and lots of 'brands'.

Thistly Sat 08-Aug-20 10:46:01

they own lots and lots of 'brands'.

Part of their strategy to make it more complicated to boycott them?

fant Sat 08-Aug-20 20:20:11

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fant Sat 08-Aug-20 20:38:14

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fant Sat 08-Aug-20 20:38:50

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