[Update: I have published a follow-up post to this one here.]
If you’ve never had a baby in a British NHS hospital, you may never have encountered Bounty. They are a marketing company that make their money by promising advertisers exclusive and privileged access to the lucrative market sector of parents of newborn babies. They can make this promise because of a series of commercial deals, some first struck decades ago, with assorted NHS hospitals that allow Bounty reps access to maternity wards and ante-natal clinics, where they distribute their wares. The Bounty pack is principally a bundle of waste paper. It contains dozens of promotional leaflets for nappies, clothing, baby gadgets, books and toys, baby food, laundry detergent and the like, along with a few samples of some products. Ours went straight into the recycling; the samples went in the bin. There is nothing in it that cannot be obtained via conventional marketing channels – like a website – but you have to go and look for them there, whereas Bounty place them, literally, in your lap.
I was pretty outraged about Bounty when I first encountered them five years ago. You get your first Bounty pack weeks before your baby is born. My wife was handed hers when she went for a routine check-up at hospital. Presumably there was usually a Bounty rep skulking about, handing out their little bags of litter but perhaps, on this occasion, she was taking a break. In her absence, my wife was handed her Bounty pack by the midwife at the end of their appointment. I was appalled at the abuse of trust involved in having a state-employed medical professional act as a vehicle for advertising. (When I complained to the hospital about it – a large London hospital, not our local one in Devon where we now live – they flatly denied that their staff ever did this.)
When your baby is born and mum and child are recuperating in the maternity ward, the Bounty rep is there, ready to pounce. They approach you outside visiting hours, when you don’t have the reassuring support of family and friends. They offer to take (and then, of course, sell you) a photo of you with your newborn baby. They now, apparently, also take your personal details to pass onto their commercial clients. My wife had the presence of mind to tell the Bounty rep who approached her to get lost and, in fairness, the rep did so without protest. Not all new mums would seem to have had this experience with Bounty.
According to Mumsnet, who are campaigning to end Bounty’s access to maternity wards, 56% of the parents they surveyed felt their privacy had been invaded by Bounty. 48% said they were not told that giving their details was voluntary and 60% said they were not told their details would be passed on to other companies. 29% felt pressurised into having their photo taken. Most worringly of all, 17% claimed that they were told that they would not be able to claim Child Benefit if they didn’t give their details to Bounty. An investigative piece by Amy Willis of The Daily Telegraph suggests that some Bounty reps have resorted to fairly deceptive and aggressive tactics when dealing with new mums. The fact that Bounty reps work on a commission-only basis suggests to me that the company may, by incentivising reps only to make as many sales as possible, also be encouraging them to pay little heed to Bounty’s own Code of Conduct.
Even if Bounty succeeds in stamping out the dishonest practices of some of their reps, a maternity ward is not an appropriate place for intrusive marketing. New mums are vulnerable and it is precisely this vulnerability that Bounty exploit. I’m not arguing that all new mums are fragile, delicate things incapable of thinking straight or defending themselves – that clearly isn’t true. But, for a lot of mums, even the easiest labour is likely to find you physically and emotionally weakened. If you are a parent for the first time, both during pregnancy and then after birth, you will naturally feel some anxiety about whether or not you are doing all the right things. A new first-time mum, probably exhausted from labour, is likely to feel uncertain about her situation and surroundings. She is, for hopefully only a short period, reliant on the guidance, support and assistance of others. She will also feel highly protective, first and foremost of her baby, who will appear incredibly vulnerable to her, and also of herself. She is forced into placing a colossal amount of trust in everyone around her: hospital staff, visitors and the others mums and their visitors, too. She has to know that this trust is not misplaced. All these things contribute to a sense of vulnerability. In this intensely personal time, she needs privacy.
Hospitals know this. Maternity units in NHS hospitals are secure places. You can’t just walk in. When I visited my wife and baby in hospital, I had to be buzzed in through a heavy, securely locked door only once I had identified myself and they had visually confirmed that I was who I said I was. Newborn babies are immediately fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet that sets off an alarm if it is carried out of the ward. The NHS understands the vital importance of new mums being able to feel safe and secure and being able to trust everyone around them – yet they allow Bounty reps in to abuse that trust.
There should be no doubt that the vulnerability of new mums is a key selling point for Bounty, and a fundamental aspect of its product offering to advertising clients. I’m sure they don’t say as much to potential commercial clients, and they may not even be consciously aware of it themselves. They’ll talk about their exclusivity of access and the ability of advertisers to reach their target audience in an environment otherwise uncluttered with competing marketing messages. They will talk about the lack of wastage – the fact that only new mums see a Bounty rep, so companies are not spending money reaching people outside their target market. But they and their clients are also reaping the commercial benefit of reaching people who are likely to be too vulnerable to resist them. Having access to maternity wards – right up to your bedside – automatically makes a Bounty rep a ‘trusted person’. No wonder so many mums let their guard down and believe that buying a photo or giving up their personal details is the right thing to do. The hospital has let the rep in, so she must be trustworthy, right? But it is trust misplaced. It is trust to be exploited, not respected. The Bounty rep has no interest in you or your child beyond your potential to be parted with your money. She is not recommending products that she thinks would benefit you or your baby, she’s touting the ones she’s been paid to promote. Taking advantage of your vulnerability is an essential aspect of Bounty’s service.
We have laws and regulations against advertising that targets vulnerable people. This is because advertising is supposed to be about encouraging you to make informed, considered purchasing decisions. When you are vulnerable, you may be more trusting, and so more credulous, than usual. You may be less able to identify misleading information. You may be less able to resist high pressure selling techniques (like being approached when you are in a hospital bed). You may also be less able to make informed, considered choices. You are more vulnerable to scams (in fairness to Bounty, nothing they do or advertise constitutes a scam) but also to buying products that are not right for you or that you don’t want and wouldn’t buy if you were not vulnerable. If you are vulnerable, you may feel less able to say “no”.
We were lucky. Aside from a minor complication that did cause us enormous worry for the first few days (that’s him in the picture, three days old), our baby was healthy, born at full-term, with a strong and savvy mother. But even we valued enormously the safety, security and privacy of the maternity ward in the few days that my wife and child spent there. Imagine the value you would place on those things if you were not so lucky and you were alone, upset, worried, exhausted or ill. You would be truly vulnerable, and a pushy sales rep with a camera is the last person you should have to deal with.
Even if you had a scrupulously honest and decent Bounty rep (as I’m sure most of them are) there is no place for them in a hospital maternity ward where privacy and trust should be of paramount importance.
Four-and-a-half years after my son was born, I’m delighted that Mumsnet has launched its campaign to shut Bounty out of maternity wards. Though normally scathingly dismissive of online petitions and ‘slacktivism’,
I might even sign I have signed this one. I hope it succeeds.
Correction: The original version of this blogpost said that Bounty’s access to maternity wards was due to a deal done with the NHS. In fact, the payment-for-access arrangements are negotiated with each hospital individually. This has now been corrected.
Amendment: Since first writing this blogpost, I became aware of Amy Willis’ article in the Telegraph and references to this article have subsequently been included.