In an effort to boost disappointing sales of its infant formula, Carnation Co. says it will begin advertising the product directly to mothers next month in a controversial strategy that has been opposed by pediatrician groups and advocates of breast feeding.
Until recently, infant formula makers had advertised only to health professionals in medical journals under guidelines approved by the influential American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy and other health organizations say formula ads aimed at mothers may discourage breast feeding, which is widely regarded as providing the most healthful food for infants.
Glendale-based Carnation hopes to improve sales of its Good Start formula, emulating the success of a Gerber Products formula that is advertised to new moms over the academy's objections.
"We have certainly opposed (consumer ads) with the Gerber formula and would oppose it with the Carnation formula," said James E. Strain, the academy's executive director and a Denver pediatrician. Strain says the academy no longer "accepts any funding for academy programs" from either Gerber or Bristol-Myers Squibb, the pharmaceutical company that teamed up with Gerber in June, 1989, to introduce the formula.
Despite the academy's opposition, the Gerber formula is "doing quite well. It's meeting all of our expectations," said Gerald Elliott, public affairs director at Bristol-Myers.
However, Elliott says, Bristol-Myers will continue to advertise its Enfamil formula--the nation's second-best-selling formula--only to medical professionals. Although more mothers are deciding on their own whether to breast- or bottle-feed their babies, Elliott says, infant formula sales remain primarily "driven in terms of physician referrals."
Abbott Laboratories, whose Similac brand is the nation's leading infant formula, will continue to refrain from advertising to consumers, a policy it has adhered to for about 50 years, a company spokesman said.
Abbott and Bristol-Myers dominate the nation's approximately $1.5 billion in annual formula sales. Although 60% of American mothers breast-feed, the growing ranks of working mothers, many of whom return to work relatively soon after birth, have spurred infant formula sales. Formula sales in food stores rose 18.3% to $1.42 billion for the 12-month period ending June 16, according to Nielsen Marketing Research.
Carnation--whose parent corporation, Swiss foods giant Nestle, was the object of a worldwide boycott over formula marketing practices in Third World countries--has been frustrated in its attempt to tap the lucrative U.S. market. The company introduced Good Start and Good Nature, which are designed for infants who have begun to eat solid foods, in November, 1988.
"We have not been at all happy with our total results," Carnation President Timm Crull said in an interview. "We could not compete with the (infant formula) oligopoly by going to the doctors. If we are going to be a viable entity in this business, we had to change our focus in the marketing of the product."
The guidelines banning consumer advertising hamstring new competitors, said Crull. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the industry's voluntary ban on consumer advertising as part of an investigation into possible unfair competitive practices by infant formula makers.
Crull says it will continue to call and advertise Good Start to health professionals while pitching the products to new mothers. The ads will emphasize that breast milk is the most nutritious food for newborns, he said.
Under pressure from the academy, Carnation dropped its name from earlier ads that promoted Good Start and Good Nature shortly after their introduction.