Baby foods maker Gerber Products said Thursday that it has teamed up with the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers to introduce an infant formula that will be advertised directly to parents--a controversial strategy opposed by a pediatricians' group.
Most infant formulas are advertised only to medical professionals under guidelines approved by advocates of breast-feeding and the powerful American Academy of Pediatrics, which on Thursday voiced its opposition to the Gerber plan.
The groups say that advertising directly to mothers may discourage breast-feeding, and last year, the academy and others opposed a similar marketing method that Los Angeles-based Carnation Co. used to market a new formula product.
Dr. Birt Harvey, the academy's president-elect, said a mother's decision to breast- or bottle-feed "shouldn't be influenced by commercial advertising by one product or another. You are dealing with babies, not with soap products or automobiles." Medical professionals say that breast milk is the most healthful food for infants.
Stand-Off With Doctors
"We didn't expect them to change their position," said Steven W. Poole, spokesman for Gerber, whose representatives met with officials of the pediatricians' group to review the product and the marketing strategy. "The academy's position, we believe, doesn't give consumer-mothers enough credit about being well informed about breast-feeding."
Television and print advertising for the Gerber formula, which is to be available nationwide in October, will "emphasize that breast-feeding should be the first choice for mothers," Poole said.
Gerber says direct advertising for its product is needed if it is to make inroads into the highly competitive infant formula market. Gerber made its own formula in the 1950s and 1960s, before abandoning the business to the pharmaceutical companies, which now claim most of the $1.5 billion in annual formula sales.
The Gerber product will be made by Bristol-Myers, which makes infant formulas Enfamil and ProSobee. In the 1970s, Bristol-Myers was forced to stop advertising its formulas in baby-care magazines, under pressure from the pediatricians' organization.
The new Gerber product is actually a milk-based formula that Bristol-Myers manufactured until 1983, when it switched to a whey-based mixture.
Bristol-Myers also will promote the Gerber formula through its sales personnel who call on doctors, said Poole.
The partnership between the two firms surprised some industry analysts.
"From Gerber's standpoint, it's a lower-risk way to play it," John M. McMillin, a food industry analyst at Prudential Bache Securities, said. "But what happens if it starts to cannibalize (Bristol-Myers') existing business?"
"We're looking to increase total market share through this venture," said David Dubber of Bristol-Myers, which claims about 35% of the market. "Today, more consumers are taking a more active role in forming a selection and the Gerber infant formulas will react to that decision."
'It's Their Method'
Dubber said that Bristol-Myers has no plan to begin advertising its own infant formula products directly to consumers. "It's just their method of marketing and distribution," Dubber said of Gerber's strategy.
Industry leader Abbott Laboratories, which makes Similac, said it will continue to refrain from direct advertising.
Carnation Co., also under pressure from the Academy, dropped its name and that of its Good Start and Good Nature products from its infant product advertising.