Bottle Babies
Grave markers

by Howard Z. Lorber and Margo Cornelius

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 33-34
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

“During my residence in England, at least twenty or thirty persons have died of simple starvation under the most revolting of circumstances, and a jury has rarely been found possessed of the courage to speak the plain truth in the matter … But indirectly, far more than directly, many have died of starvation, where long continued want of proper nourishment has called forth fatal illness, when it has produced such debility that causes which might otherwise have remained inoperative brought on severe illness and death. The English working-men called this 'social murder' …” — Frederic Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844

Peter Krieg's BOTTLE BABIES is a film depicting “social murder” — the killing and maiming of African children in the name of profit. It also depicts Africa's underdevelopment. Krieg documents how human values have become distorted in a dialectic between engendered desire and multinational commercial exploitation. In this case the mothers' desire is to use baby formula and bottle feeding instead of their own milk. It has disastrous results.

The film opens in Nairobi, Kenya. A healthy mother carries her screaming infant to the hospital. In a voice over, a doctor lists its symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting, swollen stomach, depressed eyes and fontanel, rapid pulse, irregular breathing. The baby is dying of malnutrition.

The scene is common enough in underdeveloped nations, but the mother is not even of the poorest poor. "What these babies have in common,” the film states after showing a ward of similar cases, "is that they are bottle fed." The film presents a syndrome called variously "bottle baby disease," "lacto syndrome," “commerciogenic malnutrition."

The villain in Krieg's film is the multinational Nestle Company, producer and international distributor of several brands of powdered baby formula. In search of the increased profits necessary to capitalist enterprise, Nestle has actively moved into the Third World market with aggressive advertising and promotional campaigns. As the film's narrator states,

“For other than in the industrialized countries where declining birth rates led to stagnating sales, the markets in the population rich developing countries seems unlimited.”

The film pinpoints these advertising campaigns as why healthy mothers give up cheap, safe and convenient breastfeeding in lieu of formula. And giving up breastfeeding means losing the capacity to breastfeed a child. So the mother is, in effect, stuck: she cannot do other than bottle feed, regardless of consequences. By persuading a mother to bottle feed, the promotional campaigns ensure a continued market for their products.

The film builds its case by a series of counter positions. We hear a dispassionate, orderly, discursive narration while we see horrific images of crying infants, suffering "bottle baby disease" in hospital wards or having drip-bottle needles inserted in their veins. We hear in detail the presumably "correct" or idealized product directions. Then a sequence depicts the squalid reality of urban slums and impoverished rural areas that precludes following these directions. We see overworked hospital staffs' trying to persuade others to continue to breastfeed, while Nestle gives away free promotional formula kits and bottles. As the narration explains the causes of commerciogenic malnutrition, the film shows Nestle's slick, colorful posters presenting sleek, healthy babies with bottle in hand.

The film climaxes with powerful images and juxtapositions. Radios blare jingles and colorful billboards depict the great variety of Nestle's products. Cinematically, the power of advertising is "explained." Finally we see an infant necropolis, with babies' graves marked by bottles and formula tins. Even in death, "the mothers believe they have done the best for their babies." The film juxtaposes those graves to images of the huge, modern buildings comprising Nestle's corporate headquarters; the company's glowing profit reports; and corporate pique at the Swiss Third World Group's published exposé entitled, "Nestle Kills Babies."

The image of the infants' graves marked by formula tins and bottles is both poignant and an indictment of the formula producers and distributors. Advertising campaigns directly claim that formula is the "white man's powder that will make baby grow and glow." Mothers in the hospital are hooked by maternity ward give-aways, posters and calendars, and field workers dressed like nurses who extol powdered milk's virtues and discourage breastfeeding. In these ways, mothers are not simply trapped into bottle feeding by losing their milk producing capacity. They are prompted to be "modern" by using formula. This prompting is part of an old and complex process in which, psychologically and culturally, the dominant class in a social formation sets the rules and the values by which the "good life" is judged. Indeed, the Greek word "aristocracy" means, "rule by the best."

In the colonial world, the indigenous people heard time and again that they were inferior to the colonizers — morally, religiously, socially, technically, physically. They heard that to improve their lot they must adopt Western ways, and in many instances the colonized people were forced to adopt them. In the minds of many of the Third World peoples, to use baby formula marks a rise from "inferior" to "superior" culture. Mothers may believe themselves in this way to be both modern and doing well for their children. Yet such "modernity" kills Third World children.

Clearly the mothers do not realize this. In areas that have a very high infant mortality rate, children's health and development means very much to the people. Especially in much of Africa, children are valued not only in themselves but as additions to the wealth of the family group. Indigenous wealth does not so much reside in controlling goods but in forming social relations of which goods are only an extension. By focusing on children's health and well-being, the Nestle promotional campaigns directly link bottle use to fears about childhood death. These campaigns continually insist that the bottle is the best method of feeding if mothers want healthy children.

And if, as is often the case with peasant and tribal peoples, material things become invested with special powers particular to their usage, the advertisements and promotional campaigns reinforce the notion that the formulas and bottles have in them the magical power to effect children's health and well-being. Thus mothers become emotionally dependent on formula, caught in a complex dialectic between the cultural forces of their past and their present. On the one hand, the advertising campaigns push them to reject their primitive past in the face of an engendered faith in and desire for the modern" future. On the other hand, the ads continue the cultural past in a highly distorted way, which invests new cultural items with the magical powers from the past.

It is no wonder that some mothers archaic belief that "the bottles themselves have power" becomes reinforced and that other mothers use the artifacts of bottle feeding as the paltry furnishings of their infants' graves. As exemplified in the mothers using formula tins and bottles as grave markers, significant magico-symbolic items of the child's life become symbolic of the child in death. However, such an image really only indicates a larger concrete reality, underdevelopment, of which formula use comprises but one aspect. Krieg’s film implicitly but not explicitly demonstrates the underdevelopment process as a series of events that continually reduce the Third World nations' ability to become economically and politically independent.

Poor parents spend a huge proportion of their income (one-third to one-half, the film states) on formula. Consequently, this market provides a vast outflow of foreign exchange needed for multinationals' capital development. Yet from infant malnutrition grows brain damage and a degradation of the population. From induced poverty grows a larger and larger reserve army of the poor, who must find work at any price to support the purchase of needed exports such as formula.

And advertisement and product promotion are calculated to engender new needs. Such tactics affect the poor (and nearly poor) most of all. These people, seeing the growth of “wealth and progress” amongst their national bourgeoisie, hope for that kind of better life but cannot attain it. So they reach for the small symbols of "progress," one of which is powdered milk formula.

Promoting a reliance on bottle feeding and other "symbols of progress" builds the changes necessary to modern capitalist expansion: a consumer society inserts objects between humans, mediating their relations — in this case the relation of nurturance.

To mediate social relations by things is an aspect of what Marx called "commodity fetishism." Ultimately all social relations take on value through the exchange of objects. Human-properties — ideas, sentiments, beliefs, desires — become regarded as if they were objects. In the film, using formula comes between people, forming a barrier that marks them off from each other as possessor and desirer. The poor, seeking to emulate the bourgeoisie, buy commodities such as formula, believing that in so doing they are, albeit slowly, surmounting the barrier between the "good life" and abasement, between those who have wealth and those who labor.

Yet the objective difference between rich and poor remains — and grows wider with every purchase. The non-material social cohesion of indigenous cultures becomes destroyed. Relations become valued by and in virtue of exchange. The commodity — here the bottle — and its exchange both in purchase and nursing become a representation of human relations, even a focus of veneration. Thus the term commodity fetishism well applies, since the bottle attains magico-religious significance.

In "reaching for the small symbols of progress," poor Africans play out a kind of "religious drama." They venerate the object which mediates relations between themselves, between their poverty and their well being, between the reproduction of social life and living itself.

The ongoing movement toward commodity fetishism in all underdeveloped areas is a necessary one for capitalist development, a direct product of imperialism. Third World markets, slowly but carefully fostered under colonialism, absorb more and more of the excess production of capital. Social relations become more and more valued in terms of possessing modern (i.e., imported) things.

If they expand purchases of imported commodities, such as formula, importing nations further and further lose their capacity to reproduce their own material and social life. They experience an enforced dependence upon the market process and upon the marketing nations, which can both produce new goods and induce new needs. Advertising forms but one link in this chain of dependence.

Though BOTTLE BABIES is now some six years old, the disaster continues. In January 1980, World Press Review reported the continuing malpractice of the Nestle and other milk formula manufacturers. At that time the Third World distribution of formula was a 1.5 billion dollar trade. Groups such as the Minneapolis-based Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT) have organized groups in 75 cities in the United States and Canada and in ten other countries. INFACT pressures manufacturers through product boycotts and develops informational programs to stem the general Third World "trend" toward bottle feeding.

Still the disaster continues. Small articles in the daily press and in such general scientific journals as Science report parallel atrocities. For example, the dumping of children’s' wear treated with IRIS — a carcinogenic flame retardant banned in the United States — on Third World markets. Recently an outcry was raised against the sale in Puerto Rico of rice coated with talc (a carcinogen when ingested). The major Western cigarette manufacturing companies have, in the face of declining home markets, started massive promotional campaigns in the Third World. These are but the most visible manifestations of the international market structure and financial and political relations, which promote a system of unequal exchange and dependency between the Third World countries and the metropolitan powers and between internal sectors of the Third World countries themselves.

However, Krieg's film does not provide such an analysis. Krieg locates the culprit in Nestle and declaims against its advertising campaigns, as if the problem were merely one of huckstering. The appendix by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (475 Riverside Drive, NY, NY 10027) declares, "Write to Congress"; sponsor shareholder resolutions; write to newspapers, show the film.” The film's message is to stop the technique of profit gathering — advertising — but not the right to profits. It names names, but it does not name the process which the names take meaning from capitalist expansion. It recognizes a catalogue of wrongs, even the printer of the catalogue, yet it leaves the author unlocated.

But can Krieg do otherwise? It is not in the left-liberal political stance to go beyond appearances — whether the evidence is huckstering, dumping, or simply offering a product for sale. From the liberal point of view, it is not a social formation that is problematic, only particular individuals or firms. The film devolves around a question of good or bad practices, seeing problems in terms of moral issues, rather than a political-economic analysis.

On the other hand, BOTTLE BABIES, regardless of flaws, pressures the juggernaut. It is of value and should not be lightly passed by. Presently the film is being shown at colleges, medical, nursing and nutrition schools, and in small theaters devoted to independent political and artistic film. INFACT and the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility also sponsor screenings to help their efforts in the anti-formula campaign.

The film deserves a wide variety of forums, not only for what it says, but also for what can be developed in discussions following it. It is a powerful piece that clearly documents the situation and thus can serve as a jumping-off point to expose in a more detailed way the causes of "social murder."


BOTTLE BABIES (26 minutes, color). Directed by Peter Krieg, Kenya, 1975. Distributed by Unifilm, 419 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016. (212) 686-9890).