The Conflict: Elisabeth Badinter, Publicis, and Nestle.

Elisabeth Badinter’s job is to increase sales of baby formula. Why is no one talking about her laughable conflict of interest?


I am really surprised by how willing you are to give Elisabeth Badinter a pass on the clear conflict posed by her substantial financial ties to Nestlé. Since my last dispatch, I discovered that not only does Elisabeth Badinter’s billion-dollar PR and advertising company represent Nestlé’s infant formula products, but Publicis also appears to be the go-to agency for the infant formula industry’s other major players as well, including Abbot Laboratories (Similac) and  Mead & Johnson (Enfamil).

The fact that the author of a major new book asserting that breast-feeding “enslaves” and “undermines” women also personally holds controlling interest in the agency of record for the three companies that collectively control much of the infant formula market share in the United States is glaringly disturbing. I don’t find your counterargument that Badinter has been expressing the same point of view about “naturalist” parenting for the past 30 years to be persuasive. Why? Publicis has been charged with marketing Nestlé to the public since at least 1984, and has been promoting infant formula on behalf of Abbott Laboratories since 1997. Just as her views on breast-feeding may not be new with this book, neither is her revenue stream as the result of marketing infant formula.

This isn’t a case of a college professor inheriting shares in a big company from which she’s functionally detached, instead single-mindedly devoting herself to feminist theory. No, Elisabeth Badinter has been a member of the Publicis Supervisory Board since 1987, and since 1996, Badinter has served as Board Chair. That’s not a ceremonial position—she’s directly in control of strategic decision-making for the company.

So how can anyone take anything Elisabeth Badinter has to say on the topic of infant-maternal nutrition seriously? Her ethical conflict is so enormous, and her motives so glaringly questionable, that her position on the topic ultimately doesn’t even matter. There’s just no way to get past who it is making the argument. It’s as if the Board Chairman for American Beef Association’s publicist released a book criticizing Americans’ “naturalist” eating habits, and vegetarianism in particular. It wouldn’t matter if she had a Ph.D. in nutrition from Harvard or a history of bashing vegetarianism. It also wouldn’t matter if her book were well argued and persuasive. The very idea of someone in that position writing such a book would be laughable.

The issue of how American women feed their babies is medical, cultural and personal. Sometimes breast-feeding goes well, and other times—as with my own last baby, born in 2010—a woman is unable to produce sufficient breast milk and turns to formula. And as you note, Hanna, the relative safety of today’s commercial infant formula does allow women, for the first time in history, to choose whether they will breast or bottle-feed. All of this is inarguably the case.

But what is also true is that the manufacturing, marketing, and selling of formula are immensely profitable endeavors, generating billions of dollars of revenue annually for the brands on the formula cans at the supermarket. And while these brands certainly compete against one another for market share, their No. 1 market competitor is not on the shelf next to them. It’s breast milk. Every time a woman in the United States breast-feeds her baby for one month—whether she does this out of necessity or personal choice—that represents around $100 in lost revenue to the formula manufacturers  jockeying for that mom’s debit card at the check-out aisle.

It appears that at least three of the largest infant formula companies are actively relying on Elisabeth Badinter to convince U.S. moms to spend that $100 monthly on their brands of formula rather than going with the noncommercial alternative. After reading The Conflict—and all the attendant (and uncritical) coverage of the book—I’m guessing that right now those clients are feeling pretty good about choosing Publicis.