The success of fast food chains in China, along with much of the world, has been very much dependent on the success of slick and wide spread marketing. Taste and quality have come second to the dictates of good sales techniques that play on perceptions of upward mobility, convenience and success.
As the recent rotten meat scandal illustrates, advertising may not be the best way to determine what you feed your children, yet it does have a huge sway on how people determine what is best for them and their families. The marketing tactics used by the fast food industry are not dissimilar to the baby food industry, were profits are huge and marketing budgets large.
China is a growth market, where according to Pathfinder research, the baby food industry is growing by 10 to 15 percent every year, with more than 1.2 billion dollars’ worth of sales in 2012. So it is not surprising that exclusive breastfeeding rates are declining in China, and are now down to 28 per cent.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding up to two years of age is the gold standard recommended by UNICEF and WHO. Global evidence has proven unequivocally it is the best investment for optimal growth and intellectual development of your child.
Yet despite this evidence, worldwide, 92 million children under six months of age, two out of three babies are either artificially fed or fed a mixture of breast milk and other foods.
A Global Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes was endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 1981 and adapted locally in a 1995 regulation. These seek to curtail the marketing of baby products to children under two but are proving to be vulnerable to the sophisticated marketing techniques employed by baby food companies.
Evidence by International Baby Action Network (IBFAN) clearly demonstrates that in many countries including in China, the industry is using a multi-prong approach. This combines industry lobbying to weaken national legislation, free gifts to mothers and health workers, and giving free samples, all of which have helped to increase market share.
A snapshot study by Save the Children in China found that 40 percent of mothers surveyed reported being given formula samples. Of these, 60 percent were given directly by sales representatives of the companies, while 30 per cent were given directly by health workers.
|A 10m2 of Love breastfeeding room at an H&M store in China
© UNICEF China/2014
Where is the love?
So where does that leave those of us working in public health, where marketing budgets are virtually non-existent and techniques often antiquated and scattered, primarily in rural areas? There is no doubt that enforcement and regulation of the Code must be a top priority, but while there is money to be made, we know we are often facing an uphill battle in preventing violations.
The 10m2 Campaign of Love, launched just over a year ago in China by the National Health and Family Planning Commission and UNICEF, aims to promote breastfeeding in a practical and participatory way. It encourages everyone to get engaged in providing a safe and quiet place for a mother to breastfeed, be it in public, an office or in a shop. It gets people to mark the space on a mobile app map which can be downloaded and allow mothers to find a safe and quiet place to breastfeed.
The campaign also demonstrates that the private sector can be a force for good and engage in both committing space for breastfeeding in their stores, offices and other locations. It was designed with the best creative talent of an advertising agency who gave a pro-bono contribution.
The success of the campaign, which went viral via social media, has resulted in breastfeeding spaces being opened in more than 77 cities across China. These cities have joined the campaign and are now promoting breastfeeding through providing a safe place for mothers. The success of the campaign and the collaboration between the private and public sector was also acknowledged when the campaign won a Bronze Lion Health Award at the Cannes Advertising Awards, the world’s biggest celebration of creativity in communications.
The success of the campaign in China has drawn attention further afield as other countries in Asia, many of which are facing similar problems, look to see how they can replicate it. For working mothers in China, the response has been overwhelming positive, especially where their workplace has joined the campaign and designated a space to breastfeeding.
With no breastfeeding room at work, Nianhua (her penname) used the meeting room to pump milk after lunch. But in the afternoons, there were always meetings. Then, the toilet became her best option to make food for her baby. Unfortunately, Nianhua’s workplace didn’t have an ideal toilet. Without air conditioning, the temperature soared in summer and she had to pump while enduring foul smelling air. But now that her company has joined the campaign, she is pleased that other working mothers will no longer have to go through this ordeal.
Although there is a long way to go to reverse declining trends in breastfeeding, the success of mixing creativity, bringing the private sector on board, and making breastfeeding hip and trendy, certainly demonstrates that the battle is far from lost.
Shantha Bloemen is Chief of Communications and Partnerships at UNICEF China