The only Israeli formula company, M*, with the pseudo-scientific Latin sounding name, has been running a successful public relations campaign within the religious community in Israel for eight years now. They teamed up with a charity organization to collect used M* scoops and bags. For every four collected, the company will donate one new can to the organization.
Who can complain about a company that will give needy mothers free formula, in exchange for stuff that would go in the garbage anyway?
Well, I can.
The campaign is a blatant violation of the International WHO Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes, which Israel signed and is supposedly committed to upholding.
Let me start by saying that I support the right of every family to feed their babies as they choose. Babies should not starve, chas ve-shalom, because a mother chooses not to breastfeed. If a poor family needs formula for their baby, they should get it. Even affluent mothers have a hard time getting the information and support they need to breastfeed their babies; disadvantaged families have it worse, and their babies shouldn’t suffer.
But the manufacturer’s motives are far from pure here. What invest so much in a campaign that includes full-page ads in charedi newspapers, email blitzes, flyers passed out in schools (including my daughter’s junior high) and who knows where else? I don’t want to give them ideas but I bet they have youth groups collecting the scoops too. Here’s why they do it:
- Public relations. Everyone who hears about this campaign gets a warm, fuzzy feeling about M*. When they have a baby, they remember that M* does mitzvot (nice alliteration too).
- It’s a great way to advertise among young women, their future customers.
- I can guarantee you that the chesed organization does not check to see if a family is breastfeeding before donating the formula. In fact, M* is happier to donate to families with nursing babies, because the family will be tempted to use the “free” formula and thus undermine breastfeeding by lowering her milk supply. Maybe the organization will kick in at that point with more formula, maybe not. One thing is certain–no one will ask the baby.
- Current customers will buy more M* than they would have otherwise, in order to collect scoops. That’s how public relations works.
- If M* really wanted to help poor families, they would donate the formula without collecting the scoops and making a big campaign. At the very least, they would accept scoops from other brands.
- If M* really wanted to help babies, they wouldn’t pay hundreds of thousands of shekels to distribute their products freely in every hospital and pediatric clinic, a practice detrimental to breastfeeding success.
Breastfeeding is free. It helps mothers develop a loving relationship with their babies. It helps mothers and babies stay healthy, and working mothers who pump miss fewer days because of illness. Every mother, no matter her circumstances, has the right to correct information and support. No conglomerate is looking out for breastfeeding; the Code‘s purpose is to even the playing field so that breastfeeding has a chance. The paternalistic assumption that poor mothers can’t or won’t breastfeed harms families. I have a friend who was in bad financial straits. Despite the fact that she was nursing, everyone kept trying to buy her formula.
Just for the record: Nursing mothers do need to consume more calories. However, an extra bowl of oatmeal is a lot cheaper than a day’s worth of formula.
A neighbor once approached me to help buy formula for a family with newborn twins. The hospital staff had convinced the mother to take dry-up pills in the hospital. I mean, everyone knows that no one has enough milk for twins, right? When the mother came got home and found she couldn’t afford the formula, the neighbor approached various organizations (including the one above) but nothing materialized. I offered to help the mother start breastfeeding again as this is possible even after those pills, but she never contacted me. (In case you’re wondering, I did give a donation.)
It’s time to wake up and acknowledge the detrimental effect of this kind of promotion on babies and families in Israel.