Fighting back at the digital spies who target mums-to-be

Bringing a baby into the world should not be used as a sales opportunity by formula companies, says Kathriona Devereux
Fighting back at the digital spies who target mums-to-be

Kathriona Devereux wants to see legislation that stops pregnant women from being targeted by infant formula companies

IMAGINE conducting your life with a spy noting your every move.

How discomfited would you feel if every place you visit, friend you meet, purchase you make, and major life event you celebrate was captured in a ledger, your information to be sold to a company who wants you as a customer.

That is essentially how we live our lives nowadays, but instead of a surreptitious-looking man wearing a trilby and trench coat following us, we are tracked by algorithms powered by artificial intelligence to ‘capture’ our data and turn us into a sales opportunity.

Many of us will have stories of our technology ‘listening’ to us. 

Ads for an obscure holiday destination suddenly appearing in our digital feeds after a conversation with a friend, or an ad for a ‘guaranteed solution’ for an ailment you just searched about online.

Many of us accept that this is just part of the contract of using digital technology, and don’t mind if ads for new running shoes pop up after we’ve searched ‘plantar fasciitis cure’ on the internet.

Many people think they are impervious to ads and can choose to buy the new trainers or not.

But the technological tools being deployed to turn us into customers have become so bespoke and sophisticated, it is hard to know when we are being marketed to or not.

And it’s one thing to be shown an ad for trainers when you have a sore foot, it’s quite another to be shown an ad for infant formula when you are an exhausted new mother doubting if breastfeeding is going OK.

Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a new report that shockingly revealed the extent to which digital tools are being deployed to turn pregnant women and new mothers and parents into infant formula customers.

As soon as a woman uses an online due date calculator to work out when her baby will arrive, orders pregnancy clothes online, shares the big news with family, or signs up for an online baby club, she reveals her pregnancy status and companies can track her digital footprints and use different tactics to capture her as a new customer.

Nobody wants to feel manipulated, but manipulation is what the ad industry is about. And it works.

Infant formula sales continue to grow. The global formula market is valued at more than US$55 billion. The use of digital platforms by the formula industry to promote their products is accelerating.

Why does the WHO care about things like marketing tactics and digital platforms? It cares because, despite ample evidence that breastfeeding is a key determinant of lifelong health for children, women, and communities, far too few children are breastfed as recommended.

It cares because formula industry marketing is eroding global health by undermining breastfeeding and driving greater consumption of infant formula.

It cares because governments aren’t doing enough or moving fast enough to enact legislation to protect women and children.

Fewer than one in five countries (19%) globally explicitly prohibits promotion of breast-milk substitutes on the internet, social media, or other digital platforms.

This is not about pitting breastfeeding against formula feeding families. It’s about pitting all families and wider society against transnational Big Food companies and Big Tech, who see the sacrosanct human experience of bringing a baby into the world as a sales opportunity.

For families who can’t, or choose not to breastfeed, infant formula is a safe means of feeding their baby and they should have access to impartial unbiased information about how to feed their babies - not ads.

It’s about turning off the ads that are designed to undermine women’s confidence in their bodies’ ability, and hence undermine breastfeeding. It’s about levelling the playing field and protecting all families from unnecessary manipulative marketing.

The WHO has called on the baby food industry to end exploitative formula milk marketing. They’ve been asking that for 40 years so I have little hope the industry will change.

It’s up to governments to protect new children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to end all advertising or other promotion of formula milk products.

If this all makes you weep that humanity has made a pact with the digital devil and can never wrest control back again, don’t despair, yet.

Ireland has legislation that prohibits the advertising and marketing of infant formula for babies up to six months. Existing Irish legislation means you should never see ads or promotions for infant first milks which are recommended in the first 12 months of a baby’s life.

However, soon after this legislation was created, infant formula companies invented ‘follow-on’, ‘growing-up’ and ‘toddler’ milks aimed at children older than six months.

By creating this range of nutritionally unnecessary milks, companies can advertise them and get their brands into the consciousness of consumers and society.

So, Irish legislation needs an update. It’s time to put in place robust legislation that shields all families from marketing that is about promoting profit, not public health.

The good news is that Ireland is currently in the process of approving draft legislation of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, and has an immediate opportunity to align Ireland with global public health recommendations and regulate the marketing and advertising of infant formulae.

The bad news is, at the moment, there is no mention of regulation of infant formula in the Bill.

Senator Marie Sherlock, originally from Carraig na bhFear, along with Senators Lynn Ruane, and are calling on Minister Catherine Martin to amend the Bill and protect families from this exploitative marketing.

Ireland has led the way globally with anti-smoking legislation in the past, hopefully we can do the same when it comes to ending exploitative infant formula marketing.

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