In a first, innovative tool reveals findings on Code violations, showing potential to disrupt digital marketing of commercial milk formula

Mar 30 2023
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The new CATCH platform hosts the Virtual Violations Detector (VIVID).

An innovative tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to scan the internet, in particular social media, has detected tens of thousands of violations of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (and relevant WHA resolutions) since its launch in October, giving advocates hope that rampant digital marketing that violates the Code can be disrupted. The tool was developed with support from Alive & Thrive and the FHI Solutions Innovation Incubator.

“The extent of violations of the Code on digital platforms – from company websites to social media – is enormous and deeply troubling,” said Constance Ching, Technical Consultant for Code Advocacy and Implementation in the Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific regional office. “Companies are using digital marketing to categorically expose pregnant women and parents, especially when they are vulnerable, to personalized marketing so as to normalize bottle-feeding and undermine breastfeeding.”

Although the multitude of benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and babies, regardless of socioeconomic settings, are supported with sound scientific evidence, the formula milk industry alone experienced a two-fold sales increase over the past two decades, currently reaching over US$55 billion a year. Digital marketing is making it even easier for the industry to exploit parents’ fears, influence societal norms, and distort the public’s access to accurate infant feeding information. The practices also blatantly violate the Code and relevant WHA resolutions.

Digital marketing has become the dominant form of marketing in many countries and, in many ways, it is more powerful than traditional forms, noted a 2022 WHO report, “Scope and impact of digital marketing strategies for promoting breastmilk substitutes.”

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Constance Ching discusses the Code with David Clark, who until 2021 was the UNICEF Legal Advisor on the Code, a post he held for more than 20 years. Click the image to watch two "CATCH Chats."

But monitoring it is difficult: companies can use multiple digital channels to reach consumers, and easily inundate online platforms with content that appears personal. At the same time, social media has fostered new strategies that are not recognizable as advertising, including online baby-clubs, advisory services, social media influencers and user-generated content, the report said.

The marketing is predatory and rampant – but legally-binding measures restricting digital and social media marketing are limited globally. Code monitoring is extremely important – as findings can be used to advocate for strengthening national legal measures, and as evidence for enforcement, research and raising public awareness.

“Digital marketing can evade scrutiny from enforcement agencies,” the report concluded. “New approaches to code-implementation regulation and enforcement are required.”

A team of tech specialists in Viet Nam heeded the call for such new approaches. With technical assistance from Alive & Thrive, they developed two complementary tools: the Virtual Violations Detector, or VIVID, and the Corporate Accountability Tool & Communication Hub, or CATCH.

vivid violations detected
Using AI technology, the Virtual Violations Detector scans the internet to find violations of the Code like these, which are rampant.
1 - Nestle Nutrition Institute reaches out to health workers through webinars and phone apps.
2 - Bellamy's uses a common cross-promotion tactic to ensure products from the same company look similar in labels and packaging.
3 - In Singapore, Dumex (Danone) gives out free samples to entice purchase of growing-up milk, which is ultra-processed and unnecessary, high in sugar, and often promoted with unsubstantiated nutrition claims.

VIVID (VIVID Viet Nam was built based on the national legal measures, and VIVID Code using the Code and WHA resolutions as benchmark), hosted on the CATCH platform, auto-detects Code violations through AI. The volume of digital marketing activity is staggering – VIVID makes scanning the huge number of pages and posts possible. CATCH, meanwhile, acts as a virtual hub or platform to disseminate, communicate and connect the auto-detected findings.

CATCH is also envisioned as a virtual platform to connect Code advocates, and provide resources such as up-to-date relevant technical documents, research, quick references to Code and WHA Resolutions key points, and other Code-related multi-media contents, such as recent interviews with global Code experts, including David Clark, lead legal advisor on the Code at UNICEF for more than 20 years.

“During the development phase of VIVID Code, we consulted partners and Code advocates at national level, studied existing Code monitoring data and identified companies and sites that are potentially more active in digital marketing,” Ching explained. “As a result, a certain number of companies, based on how active they appear on social media and the internet, were selected for auto-detection monitoring.”

In just a few months of operation, VIVID has detected a total of 23,853 violations – despite only operating in select countries (Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Singapore, UK and USA) and monitoring select companies. The findings reveal Nestle, Mead Johnson, Danone, Abbott, Karihome and Gerber are among those with the most frequent violations detected.

Promotion to the public (outlined in Article 5.1 of the Code) was the type of violation most frequently detected (11,192 entries), followed by nutrition and health claims (highlighted in WHA resolution 58.32) with 6,581 entries.

“At this stage, our focus is on revealing the prevalence of inappropriate marketing on digital platforms with evidence from select countries and a select number of companies,” Ching said. “We will then use these examples to illustrate the magnitude of the larger situation.

“Our goal is to scale the overall usage, in particular uptake by countries or regions,” she added. “We hope that governments and civil society will take the lead on adopting or adapting the CATCH platform and VIVID tool to conduct digital monitoring. The findings collected can be used to support overall Code monitoring, enforcement, research and adoption or strengthening of national legal measures to restrict inappropriate digital marketing.”

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