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Impact of digital infant formula marketing

The second in a series of reports by the WHO

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29 April 2022

WHO report reveals further findings on exploitative marketing practices by infant formula industry

A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) ‘Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breastmilk substitutes’ is the second in a series of publications detailing how the $55billion infant formula industry uses pervasive, personalised and powerful methods to target parents and manipulate scientific claims to promote their products whilst undermining parents’ confidence. It follows release of the February 2022 report ‘How marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding’ by WHO and UNICEF – learn more on the Baby Friendly news page.

This follow-on report summarises findings of new research which analysed 4 million social media posts about infant feeding between January and June 2021. It outlines the digital marketing techniques designed to influence families’ decisions on how to feed their babies and offers an investigation into how exploitative infant formula marketing practices target new mothers with personalised social media content that is often not recognisable as advertising.

These marketing practices violate the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (the Code), a public health agreement designed to protect the general public and mothers from aggressive marketing practices. The WHO calls on the baby food industry to end exploitative infant formula marketing and on governments to protect children and families by enacting, monitoring and enforcing laws to end all advertising or other promotion of infant formula products.

Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Nutrition and Food Safety department said, “The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago. The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • Digital marketing is becoming the dominant form of marketing in many countries. In some countries more than 80% of exposure to breastmilk substitutes advertisements occurs online.
  • Digital marketing increases breastmilk substitutes sales and occurs across multiple online channels and social media platforms in every country.
  • Breastmilk substitutes companies buy direct access to pregnant women and mothers in their most vulnerable moments from social media platforms and influencers. They use apps, babyclubs, advice services and online registrations to collect personal information and send personalised breastmilk substitutes promotions to mothers.
  • Breastmilk substitutes companies use strategies that aren’t recognisable as advertising, such as online baby-clubs, advisory services, social media influencers, and user-generated content.
  • Breastmilk substitutes brand accounts post content on social media around 90 times per day and these reach three times as many people as informational posts about breastfeeding.
  • Digital marketing can evade scrutiny from enforcement agencies. New approaches to Code-implementing regulation and enforcement are required.

To read the full report visit WHO’s website.

Learn more

To read the first report in this series ‘How marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding’ visit the Baby Friendly news page.

You can also read our 2016 Call to Action campaign which was launched to protect the public from harmful and misleading marketing. As a result of this campaign in 2019, Channel 4 Dispatches explored how powerful multi-national companies have been pushing the boundaries of existing legislation to promote their products.

For in-depth information on infant formulas in the UK, please visit First Steps Nutrition Trust.

Find out more