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- 04/27/2022

Examining the impact of formula milk marketing on infant feeding decisions and practices

AgroFOOD Industry Hi Tech


How marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding, systematically examines women’s and health professionals’ experiences of formula milk marketing. The largest ever study of its kind, it draws on surveys with over 8 500 pregnant women and mothers of young children (aged 0-18 months) across eight countries, and more than 300 health professionals.

The study, commissioned by WHO and UNICEF, was undertaken between August 2019 and April 2021 by a specialist research team with commercial marketing and behavior change expertise, and conducted in eight countries – Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK), and Viet Nam. The report exposes the aggressive marketing practices used by the formula milk industry, and highlights impacts on families’ decisions about how to feed their infants and young children.

  1. Formula milk marketing is pervasive, personalized, and powerful. Across all the countries studied, formula milk companies use a range of tactics to engage women through online and offline channels and platforms. Digital marketing provides a rich stream of personal data which is used by companies to refine and optimize marketing strategies.
  2. Formula milk companies use manipulative marketing tactics that exploit parents’ anxieties and aspirations. Industry claims its products can solve common infant problems, it positions itself as a trusted friend and advisor, it appeals to parents’ aspirations for their children, and it plays on parents’ anxieties and self-doubts. Companies have even played on parents’ fears during the COVID-19 pandemic to sow doubt and enhance sales.
  3. Formula milk companies distort science and medicine to legitimize their claims and push their product. They make false and incomplete scientific claims and position formula as close to, equivalent or superior to breast milk despite growing evidence that breast milk and breastfeeding have unique properties that cannot be replicated by artificial formula.
  4. Industry systematically targets health professionals– whose recommendations are influential – to encourage them to promote formula milk products. Sponsorship, incentives and training activities are used – either directly or through their institutions – to build relationships and influence health workers’ practices and recommendations.
  5. Formula milk marketing undermines parents’ confidence in breastfeeding. Many women express the desire to breastfeed, but a sustained flow of strategic and persuasive marketing messages undermines their confidence. Women’s positive attitudes towards formula milk correlate with their exposure to marketing, and the fears and doubts they express about breastfeeding often mirror the themes and messaging of marketing.
  6. Counter-measures can be effective, but must be comprehensively expanded and scaled up. Governments, health professionals and their associations, civil society, and many other actors can immediately take meaningful actions to end unethical marketing of formula products and to support women, parents and caregivers in their infant feeding practices.


Read the complete report here: