Boots' infant formula faux pas amidst debate over UK advertising regulations

By Olivia Haslam

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages - advertising compliance / cnythzl
GettyImages - advertising compliance / cnythzl

Related tags Regulation Advertising Infant formula Breastfeeding Marketing petition Debate Nutrition Uk Supermarket

The ASA has ruled online advertisements promoting infant formula products from Boots violated a UK advertising code aimed at safeguarding breastfeeding, at a time when a retail giant is calling for amendments to regulation.

The four paid Google ads from Boots UK Ltd were displayed to users on April 11, 2023, showcasing various infant formula products, including Aptamil, Hipp Organic, Kendamil (First Infant Ready to Feed), and Cow & Gate.

The ads, each accompanied by images of the product packaging, raised concerns due to regulations prohibiting the marketing of infant formula, with the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) finding that the ads breached Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Codes​. 

Advertising infant formula​ 

Kristy Coleman, partner at Greengage Law, explains: “In the UK, the advertising of infant formula for babies up to six months old is restricted by law, which is mainly based on the UK's adoption of the World Health Organization (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes​.”

She explains that the regulation has been built to promote breastfeeding as the best form of infant nutrition.

She states: “Marketing infant formula for babies up to six months old is prohibited (with a few exceptions, e.g., trade press) because it could potentially undermine breastfeeding, which is considered essential for infant health and development. Marketers should not confuse infant and follow-on formula.”

Coleman continues that in addition to marketing, the law sets standards for labelling and the quality of infant formula, noting: “The prohibition on the marketing of infant formula does not mean that factual and scientific information cannot be made available, and it doesn’t restrict choice. 

“The prohibition aims to ensure that feeding choices are made on a fully impartial basis, rather than inaccurate, misleading or biased marketing claims for commercial gain.”

The mistake

Boots explained that the adverts arrived on Google through paid search advertising, where products were pulled from the website via an automatic feed.

However, as Coleman explains: “Even though the Boots advertisements were automated through an algorithm doesn't allow them to bybass the law.

“Boots is responsible for ensuring that their advertisements comply with relevant advertising regulations and codes, regardless of whether the advertisements are created manually or through automated means.”

Calls for amendments

Boots amended the mistake, with the ASA noting: “Boots UK Ltd said they had taken immediate steps to manually remove all their infant formula advertising from Google as well as from other search engines. 

“They were fully aware of the legal responsibilities relating to infant formula and apologised for the error that had led to the ads appearing.”

Call for change

British supermarket chain Iceland recently called for an amendment to the law to allow shoppers to spend store points on infant formula and to allow them to promote a price cut to their baby formula.

statement​ released on 23rd August from the supermarket giant noted it was seeking “an adjustment to the rules in the interests of humanity and common sense, to allow retailers to help struggling families in these most testing times.”

It stated: “We have permanently reduced the price of branded formula – but we have certainly not done this to benefit our business.  In fact we’re now seeing a vastly reduced profit contribution from these lines, despite an uplift in sales. We’ve done it simply to meet the needs of our customers and because I wasn’t prepared to have it on my conscience that we had the power to help them and failed to act.” 

In the online statement, the supermarket linked a petition​ to “allow UK families to spend store points and gift cards on infant formula” which has garnered over 44,000 signatures.

However, Coleman explains: “The UK government will not amend the laws around the marketing of infant formula to benefit commercial interests (e.g., through the promotion of loyalty vouchers) due to the much larger considerations at play and the complexities surrounding the regulations from a health and consumer protection perspective. 

“Further, it has agreed to the internationally agreed WHO voluntary code of practice (The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes), which includes the objective of encouraging all Governments to prevent commercial interests from damaging breastfeeding rates and the health of their population.”

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