Efforts to limit infant formula marketing are often criticized as anti-“choice”- going against a mother’s right to choose how to feed her own baby. But even as manufacturers claim to be supporting the decisions that families make for themselves (a plausible claim to consumers who feel impervious to advertising), Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post reminds us that consumer preferences have always been shaped by commercial interests.
Pearlstein, a Washington Post business columnist, writes that “most of our preferences are learned and largely formed by social norms and expectations that producers have a strong hand in shaping.” Speaking to marketing professors and a behavioral economist, Pearlstein discusses how consumers come to align their preferences with perceived social norms. So while consumers might feel immune to ads, and commercial products a mere reflection of what people want, those products are more often a response to manufactured desires.
Pearlstein doesn’t discuss infant formula specifically; he discusses the evolution of US consumer preference for things like clam chowder, beer, and cars. But just as US consumers gradually trained themselves to prefer thicker, ultimately less tasty versions of New England clam chowder, and SUVs over minivans, it stands to reason that families adjust infant feeding decisions based on those ideas about lifestyle, family dynamics and health that the marketplace helps create. In the case of infant formula, creation of social norms through marketing is particularly troubling because they often utilize the health care system to create false perceptions of endorsement.
Pearlstein notes that consumer preferences “are anything but fixed, susceptible to changes in technology, culture, fads and the business strategies of companies competing in the marketplace.” So while we might bemoan the lack of a culture of breastfeeding in the US, there’s reason to hope that we could help to bring one about by working to create the right kinds of cultural shifts.
Read the rest of Pearlstein’s column at: