This Viral Formula Ad Absolves You for Using Formula

A century of advertising that’s gone straight for the new-mother jugular.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

When Henri Nestlé marketed his first “food for infants” in 1867, its earliest advertisements were nothing more than simple illustrations, such as a striking Alfons Mucha original depicting a cherubic baby and ethereal mother. The message was simple and subtext-free: This product exists, and you can feed it to your baby. Today, infant formula is a $3 billion industry in the United States alone. And its commercials—like all contemporary ads for everything—are highly sophisticated tableaus of pandering to whatever insecurity and guilt the most recent focus groups have highlighted.

Take the latest commercial for Similac, “The Mother ’Hood,” which has gotten more than 8 million YouTube views since the campaign’s launch in January. It’s a tear-jerking viral video that just happens to be an advertisement—which, of course, is the best kind of advertisement. It’s purportedly about how the Mommy Wars are distracting us from keeping our tiny caterwauling charges alive until they can feed themselves.

In the ad, sling-wielding yoginis, working moms, lactivists, lesbians, and even a few dads converge in a single park—and they’re about to throw down. Until, in their zeal, everyone loses sight of the very thing they want to protect—the babies!—and an unmanned stroller goes careening down a hill. Spoiler alert: The child lives and they all overcome their differences. (Similac™!)

By simultaneously absolving modern parents of shame and shaming them for shaming one another, Similac has jackhammered straight into today’s frantic parenting Zeitgeist. It turns out, however, that “The Mother ’Hood” is just the latest in a long history of American formula ads that recognize and then prey upon maternal insecurities.

The first anxiety upon which formula companies pounced about a century ago is perhaps the most looming of them all: untimely demise. “Nurse your baby if you can,” reads this 1915 magnum opus, “but if you cannot, remember that in the last forty years, millions of babies have come to their teeth easily and naturally with the help of NESTLÉ’S FOOD.”

At the time, infants who could not be breast-fed were given cows’ milk, sometimes to tragic results—they often did not live, we’re subtly reminded, to see their teeth grow in. The 1915 ad capitalizes on those fears, and then assuages them.

Such ads continued apace through the first half of the 20th century, during which time American breast-feeding also steadily declined, from being near ubiquitous in 1900, to 70 percent of new mothers in 1915, to 50 percent in 1930, to 25 percent in the 1950s. By then, pediatricians, caught up in the “scientific parenting” vogue, were pushing formula hard—and new mothers, eager to live up to the Eisenhower housewife ideal, were reluctant to disobey; formula companies advertised with corresponding enthusiasm. Check out this 1952 commercial for Pet Milk, wherein the announcer touts the doctors who “confidently” approve the brand. It’s got crystalline Vitamin D! “Always easy to digest with every feeding exactly the same,” he says, as a lithe, beaming housewife feeds her baby.

Your doctor prescribes formula! Your doctor recommends formula! The teensiest, tiniest implication here is that the doctor does not recommend you suckle your offspring like some sort of peasant or communist. During this time, formula companies were also distributing anti–breast-feeding literature in maternity wards. “Most young mothers wonder whether or not they should nurse their babies,” explained one pamphlet, sponsored by Carnation. “You do not have to nurse your child. Scientific evidence today indicates that children who have never been nursed are just as healthy, sometimes more healthy, both physically and emotionally, as children who are nursed. If you are reluctant to nurse your child, if it makes you feel tense or uncomfortable, do not attempt it.”

By the 1970s, as every with-it household was busy dissolving as many powdered foods or beverages as possible—Sanka, Cremora, Tang—instant formulas replaced the homemade variety. And they were a massive hit: Formula use rose to 78 percent of American-born babies, all without a single direct-to-consumer advertisement; new moms were instead deluged with free samples in the hospital, which seemed to suffice.

But beginning in 1989, to the disapproval of the American Academy of Pediatrics and amid a new uptick in breast-feeding, formula companies decided to supplement the hospital samples and advertise directly to consumers. By then there were laws in place about what advertisers could claim—for example, they could no longer state that formula was healthier than breast milk, as the old pamphlets had. So advertisers had to be discerning (or maybe just sneaky) in their appeal to whatever was frightening new moms at the time. Check out this one from 1993, for Carnation Follow-Up:

The stated message of this ad is, again, innocuous: Hey, parents who already use formula! Here’s one for older kids. But the “graduation” motif also connotes that babies who eat Carnation Follow-Up are smart and ambitious. Don’t you want your baby to be smart and ambitious? Or would you rather he turn out like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites? (That slacker probably nursed until he was 12.)

In the 26 years since formula companies began advertising in American consumer media, their job has gotten tougher: There’s been a continuing increase in both breast-feeding itself and breast-feeding support in “baby-friendly” hospitals, where there is a marked dearth of free formula samples. And, with the rise in visibility of the 100 percent organic bourgeois supermom (and the beatifically nursing supermodel) comes an onslaught of formula shame. Oh, you want to poison your baby? So you can what, go to your jobby-job? Get a pedicure? Some of us actually care about our children, no big deal.

This is the milieu in which the new Similac campaign, the Sisterhood of Motherhood, entered my Hulu stream shortly after my daughter was born three months ago, because apparently Hulu knows everything about me. Sure, I breast-feed, but I bet Hulu knows that, too, and thus preys on my myriad insecurities about the baby’s nourishment. Like: Until she was 2 months old, I couldn’t make enough milk to sate her, and she would pop off mid-nurse with a heartrending little wail. Then my supply caught up and ranneth over, and now my “forceful letdown” makes her yowl in frustration. Meanwhile, those moms on that Similac commercial, called “I Accept You,” are “accepting” everything about one another—high school waiting lists for fetuses, formula, spit-up on the shirt. OMG, there’s spit-up on my shirt! I want to be in the Sisterhood of Motherhood!!!

I’m about as dedicated to nursing as they get—I’m breast-feeding right now, while I type this sentence one-handed. And even I was like, “Wow, Similac gets me.” Or at any rate, gets at me, by reminding me that there is another way to feed my child and that I should feel zero guilt about it whatsoever. (And my guilt is severe: The teachers of my breast-feeding class said that even new mothers who smoke should breast-feed, because a “small amount” of nicotine is still better for babies than formula!)

It is precisely Similac’s shrewd offer of absolution for the “wrong” of using its own product that allows ads such as “I Accept You” and especially “The Mother ’Hood” to hit so many nerves. (The latter is a formula ad that does not use the word formula.) It’s pandering, yes, but it’s also true. Lovingly feeding your child formula is better than all sorts of alternatives, including letting him roll off a cliff while you lecture someone else about the breast—or, in the nonmetaphorical version, paying more attention to acrimonious Facebook threads than to him. That’s why the ad is so effective, and so annoying, and so eerily like those that came before. First it mocks today’s myriad parenting insecurities, then it milks them.