“Out of nowhere a woman came up to my hospital bedside, congratulated me and asked if I’d like a photo with my new baby, even though she was nowhere in sight,” remembers Aimee.
“I would have given anything just to hold my little girl, let alone have a picture taken, but she was in the ICU fighting for her life.”
Shockingly, this scene is all too familiar on maternity wards across the UK, where just hours after birth, new mums are bombarded with offers for discounted grocery deliveries, breast pads, photo shoots and life insurance.
“As a new parent you’re very vulnerable, which also makes you a marketer’s dream,” explains Anna Williamson, author of Breaking Mum And Dad: The Insider’s Guide To Parenting Anxiety.
“There is a very fine line between providing a solution and taking advantage of overwhelmed new mothers. Many women are left feeling bewildered by a plethora of targeted marketing, and find themselves shelling out hundreds of pounds for products in the belief that all these gadgets and gizmos will make life easier.
“It doesn’t help that in our digital era packed with social media and influencers, it’s practically impossible to escape being told what every parent ‘must’ have. But the reality is they barely use the hoard of crap they were told to get.”
For many women, their first encounter with maternity marketing is through Bounty, which brands itself a UK-based parenting club and claims to “support families in the transition to parenthood… from pregnancy to birth to toddler to pre-school”.
But it’s also a company designed to make money, and mums are typically handed the Bounty pregnancy information folder at their first midwife appointment. The plastic packs include a copy of You And Your Pregnancy guide, along with samples and vouchers.
What many don’t realise is that Bounty also pays cash-strapped NHS Trusts around £2.3million for access to maternity wards, and receives £90,000 a year from HMRC to distribute child benefit forms, which are easily available online.
The onus is on trusts to manage the reps on their wards, and the responsibility inevitably falls to midwives, who are already overworked and under-resourced.
“We hear a lot of stories about commercial reps playing on new parents’ emotions to achieve sales or persuade women to hand over their details,” says Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, an online community for mothers. “Our users feel strongly that women who’ve just given birth are entitled to peace and privacy on the wards and should never have to fend off salespeople.”
When Aimee’s daughter Ottilie was born by C-section at 35 weeks in October last year, she had to be rushed to intensive care with breathing difficulties caused by a build-up of fluid.
“We weren’t sure if she would live. It was very traumatic,” says Aimee. “We were fraught with worry.
I was back on the ward, not even clothed because I was expressing milk, when a total stranger walked in and started a sales pitch. I felt so numb and emotional, I couldn’t quite believe what she was doing. I tearfully told her my daughter was very poorly and to leave me alone.
Although the woman scuttled out, I was shocked that she’d gained entry to the room given the circumstances. I know it’s meant to be up to the midwives on the ward to control the reps, but they have enough on their plates.”
Unfortunately it was not the first bad experience Aimee had with Bounty reps. After her first child Freddie was born in 2014, she was sold a Bounty photo shoot just hours after giving birth.
“Freddie was a breech birth and delivered by C-section. It was traumatic, but within 12 hours of his birth, before the feeling had fully come back in my legs, there was a Bounty rep in our room trying to sell us a photo shoot,” she recalls.
“I still had a catheter in and was bed-bound, the second time she came in she disturbed a breastfeeding session. The third time she interrupted the hearing screening. The fourth time I said OK as I felt like we were being hounded. It cost £150 and my husband had just been made redundant, but I thought it was what every mum did.”
Although Bounty has been operating for almost 60 years, there’s been controversy over its practices for decades.
A 1984 report in the British Medical Journal accused the company of “exerting pressure on new mothers at a time when they are most vulnerable”, while in 2013 Mumsnet began a campaign to ban Bounty reps from wards after a barrage of complaints from members about hard sales tactics.
Over 90,000 people signed petitions, and NHS watchdog the Care Quality Commission was given more power to investigate unscrupulous practices.
“While Mumsnet users think the principle of signing up for the free samples is fine, they’re near unanimous that the value of the samples don’t justify the intrusion of reps on postnatal wards,” explains Justine.
In response to the ruling, Bounty promised to rigorously enforce its code of conduct, always checking first with the midwifery teams before entering rooms and never interrupting mothers who are sleeping or feeding their babies.
However, given the number of complaints Mumsnet still gets about it, this clearly isn’t happening, and some feel the problem is getting worse given the growing number of platforms available to target mums to be, such as apps and email.
Bounty isn’t the only pregnancy club monetising motherhood. Emma’s Diary, which has been going for 26 years and was promoted by the Royal College of General Practitioners until recently, operates on a similar business model. It offers discounts at shops for pregnant women who sign up through social media and selected stores.
Worryingly, last year it was revealed that the organisation had also been illegally collecting data and selling it to the Labour Party, which used it to profile new mums. The company was fined £140,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office in August.
And these days, the marketing starts even before conception. Research by Evidon revealed that some of the top period and fertility tracking apps, including MyDays and Period Tracker Lite, in addition to pregnancy apps like My Pregnancy & Baby Today, share data with third-party analytics and advertising companies, which then use the data to target ads at the user.
Then there are growing numbers of private ultrasound clinics offering souvenir scans and printing baby’s first photo on key rings and mugs. Window To The Womb, for example, has over 30 high-street clinics and performs 100,000 scans a year, including a 4D option that can cost up to £135.
Company director Stephanie Davies, 39, was just six weeks pregnant when she first experienced maternity marketing after she received her Bounty folder from the antenatal clinic at Epsom Hospital.
“It was full of flyers and vouchers for things I didn’t need or want,” she says. “I thought it was inappropriate – before it was even a viable entity, my baby had become a commercial opportunity. Once I’d had a scan to confirm my pregnancy was going well, I tossed it into the car and forgot about it.”
That was until Steph, who lives in Surrey with her husband, sadly miscarried four weeks later.
“I’d gone for a private scan and was devastated to be told no heartbeat could be detected,” she says.
“It was awful. I was aware that miscarriage is common, particularly in early pregnancy, so I tried to be pragmatic. But seeing all the leaflets splayed in the back of the car was still a stark reminder.
“While I tried not to let it upset me, I knew that for many women, seeing something like that could really amplify their sadness. It’s clearly wrong to start pregnant women on a sales journey so early on when the statistics show that there is a real possibility that things might not work out.”
Lauren Harris, 40, set up a petition earlier this year to lobby government to stop commercial reps targeting new mothers on wards after she was approached by a Bounty employee following the birth of her son Joey. It’s already gained over 13,000 signatures and if it hits 100,000 by March 2019, it will have to be considered for debate in Parliament.
“It was a couple of days after I gave birth,” says Lauren, a press officer who lives with her partner Ben in London. “I was recovering in a private room, still bleeding and not getting much sleep. I remember the door being shut and still feeling groggy as I sat in my knickers with no top on when a lady came in, handed over a Bounty pack and asked for my details. I refused twice, so she started on a big sales pitch about photographs.
“It was only when I got really irritated and told her to go away that she finally left. I was so shocked and angry that I tweeted about how unacceptable it was, and over 600 women reacted with their stories.
“Even if their baby has died, women get stuff sent for months just because they are on a system,” she says.
“I’ve heard of some who’ve had stillbirths being approached in hospital rooms and the rep walking off without a word of sympathy. It’s beyond shocking that these untrained, unsupervised people can be in the vicinity of women who might be traumatised after giving birth.”
When Lauren asked staff at St George’s Hospital in London about the reps, she was told they were supposed to ask staff before entering rooms.
According to a spokesperson from the Royal College of Midwives, women receiving postnatal maternity care “should never, ever be made to feel pressurised by sales reps in any hospital or unit where they should be feeling safe and cared for.
Hospitals must take all necessary steps to ensure that women or their families are not in any way pressured by sales reps.”
In the wake of Lauren’s petition, the Department of Health and Social Care has reiterated its stance that Trusts should develop their own policies and practices.
Meanwhile, Bounty has issued a statement saying that the privacy and dignity of new mums are of paramount importance, and that the organisation “welcomes the idea of developing criteria for hospitals to determine how privacy and dignity are respected”.
Some Trusts are already beginning to clamp down, however. This year, Ipswich Hospital introduced a system allowing women to place a card by their beds to indicate whether they want to be approached by Bounty or not. Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust is introducing a similar system.
And online parenting communities are taking a stand. Alison Perry, 39, mum to six-week-old twins, even created a poster women can print off and use in hospital to deter salespeople.
“It can feel awkward having to say no to someone who might actually be quite nice and just doing their job, so all mums need to do is put the poster at the end of their bed,” she wrote on her blog.
As this pressure mounts, those calling for change are hoping that motherhood will no longer be treated as a cynical commercial opportunity.
“Every time there are complaints, the companies come up with the same spiel: ‘Women love us and we treat them with respect,’” says Lauren.
“But there is no one else in hospital being bothered to buy stuff. The NHS obviously needs money, but it shouldn’t be selling access to women at this point in their lives.”
●We repeatedly contacted Bounty for their right to reply, but at the time of publication had received no response.
Photography: Gallery Stock, Shutterstock
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