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Jessica Shortall
Contributing Writer

Time To #EndMommyWars? A Review Of Similac's Video

Jessica Shortall is a working mom with a career dedicated to the intersection of business and doing good. As the former Director of Giving for TOMS Shoes, she literally circumnavigated the globe with a breast pump, and now she's here to give you advice for dealing with the challenges of being a working and pumping mom. Order her new book from Abrams, Work. Pump. Repeat.: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, available now!

There's a viral video burning up the Mommy Internet: Similac's #EndMommyWars " The Judgment Stops Here," which claims it's going to end all mom judgment. I mean hey, it's good to have big goals, right?

I love that this message included an LGBT mom, a single mom, and a mom who had experienced a loss. And I know so many women who need to hear that they're doing a great job, no matter which area they're convinced they're currently failing in.

I know the average mom watching this and getting all teary-eyed doesn't care who the message is from, but I need to state that it's from a formula company, and that matters. Yes, formula helps families. It sure as hell helped me. And it shouldn't be demonized. Period. But, a quick history lesson: the pro-breastfeeding community doesn't like formula companies because they've been active participants in several marketing and advertising initiatives over the years to undermine breastfeeding, in both developed and developing countries. I'm really, really moderate on these issues, but I've seen firsthand how formula is promoted as better than breast milk in developing countries. I've seen it in the US too. Formula itself? Not evil, and you are not at all bad for using it. But formula companies have not had a perfect track record, to say the least.

So the super pro-breastfeeding advocates are going to see this ad (and it is an ad!) as a sneaky way of undermining breastfeeding by creating a sense of equivalency in all feeding choices, even though science does say that breast milk is nutritionally superior. And they have a point. Watch thebreastfeeding blogosphere: It will explode about this. I empathize with them. You can be supportive of all families' feeding choices without pretending that science doesn't exist. There are health and nutritional benefits to breast milk, and those benefits don't have to be hidden...just as much as they don't have to be turned into a sledgehammer with which to beat women over the head.

But if it's possible to take the emotion out of this for a second (Side note: I am pretty sure it's impossible), I noticed something interesting about this ad that I think could be a useful lesson in 21st-century branding for breastfeeding advocacy organizations.

Before I get into what that lesson is, I want to make clear where I'm coming from:

  1. I WANT more women to succeed at breastfeeding, because a) it's good for them and for their babies, and b) a lot of them feel like crap if they don't feel they succeeded. I also want women who don't or can't breastfeed to not feel like crap or failures.
  2. I want MORE women to seek out a lactation professional when they're having problems, so they can get compassionate support and maybe be more successful at breastfeeding.
  3. I don't think that the power of science is going to suddenly bring gazillions of women over to doing that, but the scientific benefits of breastfeeding seem to be the main selling point used by breastfeeding support advocates.
  4. I think the "brand" of pro-breastfeeding people—and it doesn't matter if this brand is fully deserved or not; in the 21st century you don't get full control of your brand—keeps some women from seeking out lactation support, and keeps some women away from breastfeeding altogether. That’s a problem that I think that pro-breastfeeding people should care about instead of insisting  over and over that it doesn't exist, that women don't really get shamed and bullied, that it's only a few bad apples.  

That's my problem-solving mindset:  I care a lot about women who want to breastfeed and aren't getting the support they need. And I care a lot about women who struggle with guilt and shame about not breastfeeding, or not breastfeeding for "long enough."

This Similac video is reaching a LOT of women, and many have  sobbed at their desks while watching it. It’s touching something real about these women’s experiences.

So, forget about the messenger and the product just for a minute and let's analyze WHY this message is so effective in its virality, and in touching an emotional nerve. After all, if you've made an ad that is both viral and sob-inducing, you've basically won at advertising. So what's the special sauce?

  1. This ad is not bothering to directly sell—or even talk about—the product. Similac is not actively selling formula here. No discussion of what makes it a good product, or how much it costs, or where you can buy it. Isn't that fascinating? (Lesson: Maybe pro-breastfeeding messages don't always have to try to sell women on why breastfeeding is a good idea.)
  2. If you think Similac made this ad to undermine the fact that they are required to put "breast is best" on everything they sell, you're probably right. They've changed the conversation, which is incredibly clever. (Lesson: If there's something that some people don't like about you, change the conversation to something powerful and resonant, that cuts across lines.)
  3. And by changing the conversation, Similac is now, in the eyes and minds of so many struggling, sad, overwhelmed, anxious, guilty-feeling, fed-up-with-mommy-wars mothers, the good guy.  They’ve reflected back to the world what so many women live and experience—both feeling judged, and judging others and later realizing that that wasn’t a nice thing to do. Similac now seems like the one place that gets it, and that doesn’t want women to feel like crap. (Lesson: People LOVE to see their experiences validated. They react very strongly to that, and, conversely, to being told that their experiences aren't real, valid, or common.)

Amazing, isn't it? There is a group of people—breastfeeding supporters—who truly want to help women and babies...but a big, for-profit company is the one that is currently owning the ground of looking supportive, and kind, and compassionate toward new mothers.

I'd say it's time for a conversation about branding.

What if breastfeeding supporters—lactation consultants, hospital nurses, big and small lactation organizations—took a big old break from trying to sell women on the facts and science of breastfeeding? What if those people and organizations, collectively, instead did some things to help women believe, REALLY believe, that the lactation community is going to welcome them wherever they are, and that no feeding choice or outcome will result in that lactation community making them feel like crap?

Imagine a world in which, when ALL women think "lactation consultant" or "breastfeeding advocate," they think, "Well, of all of the places in the world where I know I won't get judged and bullied, THAT'S no. 1."

Here's my call to action to the folks who don't like this ad: if you don't like that this is coming from a formula company, find a way to tell this kind of supportive, empathetic story yourselves, even if it's a slightly different one. It's resonating for a reason (and it isn't the first video they've made that's struck a chord with moms). Women are sobbing at their computers for a reason. They feel beat down, even if it's not YOU who is doing the beating. They want to stop feeling like there are battle lines everywhere. And they will develop loyalty and trust for those who can bring them a message that really sees them as individual people with their own struggles and circumstances and choices.

Even if that no-judgment, compassionate approach is what the majority of individual breastfeeding advocates already believe and practice, I worry that breastfeeding advocates and supporters are losing the PR battle (see: last week's firestorm-sparking New York Times article). The average woman simply does not automatically assume that she will get that love from the pro-breastfeeding community, and, like it or not, in the age of new media, that's a brand problem. And if you don't care about brand in 2015, sisters, let's talk!

So what might this look like? A video or series of videos, sure. NO BREASTFEEDING FACTS ALLOWED. Feelings. Validation. Bringing women together. A very subtle sense of the kind of support and love a woman will get by engaging with breastfeeding supporters, and by supporting each other in various feeding choices. And then, importantly, I think it also could be backed by a shift in policy: solidify the code of conduct for lactation consultants, and provide a means for women who have negative experiences to call to discuss those experiences, and something will actually change. That provides real authenticity and proof-positive that lactation organizations care deeply if even one woman is poorly treated.

In short: You can either cede the ground and let the formula company that you don't like be the one to make moms all lovey-feeling, or you can start speaking with this kind of voice yourselves, and win hearts and minds. Imagine how much we could break the internet if a no-judgment, meet-moms-where-they-are message like this were to come from the International Lactation Consultant Association, or La Leche League.

So...what would happen if the pro-breastfeeding community said, together, out loud, that all moms are good moms—in a way as resonant and viral as Similac just did? But the catch is...you have to want to say it to us. I SO hope you do.