There are many things in this world that irritate me: Rita Ora, people who dawdle in the supermarket and the word ‘moisturisation’ (it’s not a word) being just three examples. Another is the way infant formula is sold in shops in the UK.
Because no one talks to you about using and buying infant formula BEFORE you have a baby in this country I’d venture that for the majority of new parents the first few boxes of baby formula are a ‘panic buy’ – who hasn’t googled ‘nearest 24hr supermarket’ at 2am? Anyone?
As a result, this means that we are a brand marketers dream, we are tired, we are worried, we don’t know what we want but we know that we need it. In other words we are incredibly open to being influenced. But it’s ok because we are protected. The production and marketing of formula in the UK is regulated by law and groups such as Baby Milk Acton are out there monitoring the way formula companies and retailers push their luck, pulling them up and giving them a slap on the wrist when they step outside the line with a rouge ‘buy one get one half price’ offer. Thou shalt not do anything at all to encourage the purchase of formula milk, especially not by making it cheaper god forbid. Or more recently there have been reports, again, of infant formula ‘rationing’ by supermarkets. Signs on the shelves warning of only two boxes per customer. Are they trying to curb the black market in eBay sales of formula to China or is it a twisted passive marketing campaign to make people ‘think’ the formula is in short supply and therefore make them buy more???
The makers of formula know there is nothing more brand loyal than a Formula Mum. ‘I fancy switching little junior’s brand of formula on a whim’ said no Formula Mum, ever. We just don’t do it. Why would anyone wilfully risk upsetting the balance of the cosmos? Are you fricking crazy? So this whole debate around in-store promotion is a red herring. They could literally have made SMA milk free to collect in my local branch of Boots and I wouldn’t have put it in my basket, because it wasn’t my brand. I was blind to anything else.
Whilst all this furore is going on, however, there is something much more worrying happening ‘stage left’. Now for the uninitiated among you there is not just one type of infant formula. As a starting point you’ve got the Stage 1 milks, all the brands have them, this is your basic starter formula. From there on in you can find yourself a formula to remedy almost every issue you could have with a newborn – being sick a lot? Try anti-reflux, suffering from ‘deep wind’? – pick up a ‘comfort’ formula which is easier to digest, think your baby is ‘hungry’ well here’s a box of ‘hungry baby milk (what the actual fuck is that about, I don’t know). The list goes on whether you’re curing a cow’s milk allergy with a soya based formula or have diagnosed a lactose intolerance with a lactose free version. You think you need it, they will make it.
What all these formula types have in common is a small written notice that can be found on the side of each box which goes a little something like ‘This (insert brand name)’s formula is a food for special medical purposes. It should only be used under medical supervision, after full consideration of the feeding options available, including breastfeeding‘.
I’ll be honest with you, over the last year I have bought dozens of boxes of Cow & Gate Comfort formula and I can say with some certainty that I was not supervised by a medical professional at any point during the transaction. I just went into a shop and bought it having decided all by myself that it was the formula I wanted to use. I genuinely didn’t read the small print before I bought it, I was kind of busy trying to keep a small human alive, and as it was freely for sale in a shop I just assumed that it was ok to feed it to my child, like most people would.
If specialist types of formula should only be used under medical supervision then, that’s fine, put them behind the counter in the pharmacy and make them only available on prescription. Yes, you heard me, on prescription.
Oh right, but that would be kind of expensive for the NHS now wouldn’t it? And then the formula companies and retailers would stand to make less revenue and in turn the State would receive less in the way of tax on company profits and that would all just suck way too much. So I know, why not instead just put a tiny warning label on the boxes of formula and hope that mums and dads will police themselves. That way, should there ever be a tiny baby somewhere who has an adverse reaction to a specialist formula given to it without ‘medical supervision’ you, Mr Formula maker, can say that you did ‘warn’ us.
THIS is how the formula makers really exploit you mums and dads. When it comes down to it, they aren’t our friends, they are global entities operating in a multi-million £££ marketplace. They give us the illusion of ‘choice’ because the more we think we can have the more we’ll buy. That’s the biggest marketing trick they’ve got. But they also need to cover their arses, so whilst you stand there staring slack jawed and bleary eyed at the myriad of types of formula freely available un-policed in the supermarket shelves, just remember to read the small print/bring a doctor with you.