Advertising as information: not always useful (Cow & Gate Growing Up Milk)

Last night I was having a conversation with a family friend about the difference between US and UK advertising. We agreed that there are pros and cons of both, but one thing I always found alarming in the States was advertising for prescription pharmaceuticals.

“Why not?” argued J. “Part of advertising’s focus is to inform.”

“Because it’s unethical.” I countered. “Doctors shouldn’t be motivated by financial gain, nor badgered for drugs by patients who might well have only half-understood the implications of taking the advertised product. Not all of them will have researched it further.”

“But why shouldn’t they know about what’s available?”

Why not indeed? I still think there are huge question marks over bitesize chunks of information about products that can have serious side effects (or, you know, kill you), but I don’t deny that there’s important consumer power in receiving chunks of information about what’s available. Obviously.

However, there’s a line between information and scaremongering. Between becoming aware that a potentially useful product is out there and being convinced that you need something you don’t. The beauty industry has long made a fortune by inventing a problem and then telling you how to fix it. But I find that harmless compared to the absolute claptrap that’s fed to parents.

My personal pet hate at the moment is Cow & Gate Growing Up Milk. You can view the ad here.

Now, let’s get this straight – I don’t care if you breast or bottle feed. And I think there’s probably an argument for topping up some toddlers’ diets with formula; perhaps if they’re particularly fussy or for some reason have problems getting all the nutrients they need. But these ads make me want to spit with rage. Let’s look at what’s bugging me:

1. The comparison with cows’ milk

Aside from almost pretending that formula isn’t cows’ milk (albeit, obviously, fortified), this specifically focuses on iron content. Look! Two beakers of our product can give your child 100% of the iron they need, but 12 LITRES of cows’ milk would only just give them 50%. Now look at the bottom of the screen, where it says, presumably for legal reasons: “Cows’ milk is not a good source of iron”.

So, what you’re saying is, if you only fed your toddler on cows’ milk, they’d have nutrient deficiencies. Is this a good time to say ‘duh’? Toddlers, unlike very small babies, don’t live exclusively on milk. They’ll have been eating solids for several months. Perhaps they’re getting their iron from green leafy veg, grains and other (non-milk) animal products?

2. Check your toddler’s iron intake (here)

Do we really have a national toddler iron deficiency problem? That’s a genuine question, because I’ve never heard any suggestion of such a thing but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some evidence out there. I’d love to see it. This is perhaps the most useful part of the ad, helping a concerned parent reassure themselves that they’re feeding their child properly, but isn’t it amazing how we weren’t (apparently) beset with anaemic toddlers before follow on milk was invented? Talk about creating a problem to fix it.

A sensible concerned parent will, I hope, conclude that rather than topping up their toddler with an expensive powdered milk, they could just introduce more variety to their diet. But of course C&G is counting on the idea that adding the fortified milk will just be easier.

3. “Healthy babies are happy babies”

Subtext: you are making your child ill by not buying this probably totally unnecessary product. And that’s why they don’t sleep perfectly / have tantrums / aren’t completely perfect angel children. Not because they’re toddlers and that’s part of growing up, learning and development. Oh no.

I have no problem with Cow & Gate creating these products, nor wanting to make money from them, you understand. I’m a great believer in consumer choice – switch off if you don’t like the programme, don’t buy if you don’t like the product – but it really does make me grind my teeth when the advertising is woven with the threads of health scares, parental guilt and solving problems that are likely nonexistent.

Parents have, over the years, been convinced that they NEED to do all sorts of things for their children, otherwise they are appalling, abusive failures. Despite, in many cases, having grown up to be reasonable, decent adults without half the things they think of as necessities now. Using that guilt to harness their tremendous spending power is clever advertising, no doubt about it.

But it still makes me feel slightly sick.


  1. Oh I couldn’t agree with you more. These adverts really get my goat and I’m not even watching them as a parent. I remember one of the nappy brands advertising a night time nappy with the suggestion that if you didn’t put your child in their nappy their language development would be hampered! Awful stuff.


    1. Oh, yes, it’s not necessary to be (or even want to be) a parent to find them troubling. Glad I’m not the only one.


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