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In the Public Interest


Maternity Marketers
By Ralph Nader
August 24, 1999



THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY, mothers giving birth in hospitals are likely to receive a gift bag full of brand-name goodies and promotions. T-shirts, baby detergents, nursing pads, guides to infant growth, ice packs and most prominently infant formula are some of the freebies for the new moms.

About a month ago, a mother gave birth to a baby daughter at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. She promptly received two bags of corporate products and marketing materials from the hospital staff. Our researcher, Tarek Ghani, proceeded to inventory the contents.

He found 49 commercial product or service endorsements. There were seven requests of more personal information for use in mailing lists and numerous product samples from multinational corporations, some of which have exhibited dubious reputations.

There were disposable "Huggies" diapers, unscented baby wipes, diaper rash ointment, three credit card offers, an offer for a "posture improving" bra and underwear for mothers worried about their appearance, and a slew of ads for baby books, films, toys, jobs, portraits, chocolate bars, life insurance, and bottles of children's Tylenol to name a few.

In the mass of material, there were several surveys disguised as sweepstakes offers. Just answer a few questions mom and you'll receive free samples, coupons, more special offers, an opportunity to win a $1,000 Educational Savings Bond. And even free gifts, information, and coupons for the grandparents.

With the permission and implied OK of hospital authorities, the marketers are invading the maternity ward big time. Gone are the days then the wards were sanctuaries from commerce. These days, the business of birth starts as early as cutting the umbilical cord.

Tarek Ghani was not content with his inventory. He wrote a letter to the CEO of the hospital, Phillip S. Schaengold, asking him "exactly what GW Hospital gains from exposing new mothers to a manipulative culture of consumerism?"

He also inquired as to whether the hospital receives any compensation in any form from the two distributors of the bags, Giftpax and First Moments.

Finally, he asked: "Does the hospital consider its distribution of privately-produced corporate products an implied endorsement of those products, and if not, how can you possibly justify the time hospital employees spend handing out those materials?"

There is more to this complaint than a charge of consumer irritation. Reaching the mother at the time of her child's birth has been a long-time marketing strategy of the infant formula industry.

In the bag presented to one Connecticut mother, the infant formula product and a baby advice booklet were from the same company. The booklet acknowledged that breast milk was best, but should the mother be unable or unwilling to breast feed, why then the infant formula was ready.

Since new mothers are not often told about the pain that usually occurs during the first two weeks of breast-feeding, a new mother becomes vulnerable to the interruptive availability of the commercial alternative. This approach has worked for years to turn away large numbers of women from breast-feeding and is considered such a successful sales technique that marketing courses refer to it in the classroom.

Mr. Ghani's letter has a happy ending. With decisive promptness, CEO Phillip Schaengold replied with these words:

"In response to your letter, we examined the bags of materials that have been habitually distributed to patients at our childbirth center. Our staff receives these promotional bags free of charge from infant formula companies and with the best of intentions has distributed them to new mothers as gifts.

"After our review of the bags' contents we found your complaints to be valid. We too believe that the commercial products included in each bag to be inappropriate for distribution to our patients. The George Washington University Hospital does not endorse any of these products and will take immediate action.

"Over the next month, we will be working to create a GW Hospital diaper bag of our own which will include items such as: baby bibs and generic safety instruction cards. The purpose of this new bag is twofold. It removes the need for the bags you found offensive and provides a gift for new moms who deliver their babies at our hospital.

"Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention."

Good! Now, what about the hundreds of other hospitals in the country? Why not ask them to do the same in your community?