Selling second best: how infant formula marketing works



Hastings G, Angus K, Eadie D & Hunt K (2020) Selling second best: how infant formula marketing works. Globalization and Health, 16 (1), Art. No.: 77.

Background: Despite the clear policy intent to contain it, the marketing of formula milk remains widespread, powerful and successful. This paper examines how it works. Methods: The study comprised a mix of secondary analysis of business databases and qualitative interviews with marketing practitioners, some of whom had previously worked in formula marketing. Results: The World Health Assembly Code aims to shield parents from unfair commercial pressures by stopping the inappropriate promotion of infant formula. In reality marketing remains widespread because some countries (e.g. the USA) have not adopted the Code, and elsewhere industry has developed follow-on and specialist milks with which they promote formula by proxy. The World Health Assembly has tried to close these loopholes by extending its Code to these products; but the marketing continues. The campaigns use emotional appeals to reach out to and build relationships with parents and especially mothers. Evocative brands give these approaches a human face. The advent of social media has made it easier to pose as the friend and supporter of parents; it is also providing companies with a rich stream of personal data with which they hone and target their campaigns. The formula industry is dominated by a small number of extremely powerful multinational corporations with the resources to buy the best global marketing expertise. Like all corporations they are governed by the fiduciary imperative which puts the pursuit of profits ahead of all other concerns. This mix of fiscal power, sophisticated marketing, and single-mindedness is causing great harm to public health. Conclusions: Formula marketing is widespread and using powerful emotional techniques to sell parents a product that is vastly inferior to breast milk. There is an urgent need to update and strengthen regulation.

Commercial determinants of ill-health; Infant formula; Breast milk substitutes; Marketing; Multinational corporations; Corporate power

Globalization and Health: Volume 16, Issue 1

FundersWHO World Health Organisation
Publication date31/12/2020
Publication date online28/08/2020
Date accepted by journal10/07/2020

People (3)


Ms Kathryn Angus

Ms Kathryn Angus

Research Officer, Institute for Social Marketing

Professor Gerard Hastings

Professor Gerard Hastings

Emeritus Professor, Institute for Social Marketing

Professor Kate Hunt

Professor Kate Hunt

Professor, Institute for Social Marketing