Annotated Bibliography #3: “Ethics and Ideology in Breastfeeding Campaigns”

Kukla, R. (2006). Ethics and ideology in breastfeeding advocacy campaigns. Hypatia, 21(1), 157-180.

This article published in Hypatia, Rebecca Kukla explores the rhetoric of several American breastfeeding campaigns that attempt to intervene into the infant-feeding choices and behaviors of mothers. Modern health care, according to Kukla, views the mother as having the primary responsibility for the health of her child. Kukla points of that breastfeeding campaigns often present breastfeeding, which scientific studies have suggested is the healthiest method of infant-feeding, is a civic duty, and ethical practice, and a practical method of feeding. Before beginning the analysis of the images, Kukla reviews the rhetorical exigency for breastfeeding campaigns. Breastfeeding is widely viewed as the best method of breastfeeding for a number of reasons; however, breastfeeding rates in the United States fall below target rates. She explains that breastfeeding advocates were confused about why mothers choose not to breastfeed despite the fact that it is well known that breastfeeding is very beneficial and a pleasant experience. Breastfeeding advocates assumed that the reason that mothers were not breastfeeding was because they were not getting the messages. Rather than examining the reasons that mothers were not breastfeeding, in 2004 the Department of Health and Human Services decided to hire the private advertising agency the Ad Council to design a slogan and breastfeeding promotional materials. By examining the advocacy campaign through the lens of semiotics and analysis of the ethics of the campaign, Kukla examines what the campaign reveals about the culturally situated nature of breastfeeding. Kukla explores the cultural factors that make breastfeeding difficult: sexualization of the breast, codes dictating appropriate public and private behaviors, barriers for working mothers. Kukla points out that many images of women breastfeeding show women wearing nightgowns or robes, suggesting that breastfeeding is a domestic act. The narrative about breastfeeding suggests that it is easy and joyful. Women who have difficulties with breastfeeding are seen as “deviant and unmotherly” (169). Mothers who have difficulty feel “unmotherly, shameful, incapable, defective, and morally inadequate” (170). Rather than helping mothers overcome these barriers, the DHHS campaign reinforces the notion that breastfeeding is private by include pictures of objects mean to represent breast (ie. an ice cream sundae with two scopes each topped with a cherry). The text accompanying the images reminds mothers why choosing not to breastfeed may harm children, which was a change from past advocacy campaigns that promoted the benefits. Kukla argues that this campaign was harmful because it painted mothers who face barriers to breastfeeding as harmful to their children. Kukla claims that the DHHS campaign and similar campaigns are “unethical assaults” and campaigns that focus on risk in this way are normative (175).

This article is beneficial because it helps us think about the rhetorical situation and the ways in which visual design can reveal and conceal. Though the discussion of visual analysis was played a relatively minor role in the article compared to discussion of the intended message and reception, it is important to pay attention to the ways in which visual design can be problematic when the producer or active participant fails to understand the needs of the receiver of the message. In this case, while the design was meant to send a message to mothers, it conceals the real problems. Ironically, in rhetorical analysis, this concealment of the real cultural barriers reveals problematic views of the nature of women’s experienced with breastfeeding and a lack of understanding of the barriers that many mothers face. In my own research, this essay will be helpful as a starting place for seeing how breastfeeding campaigns have been characterized in the past. In this case, there were no mothers shown in the images. More recent campaigns have featured mothers, but some have posed a new set of problems because of their contexts.


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