For those who know Orange County through The O.C.—a teen soap opera about rich, sun-kissed American teens—that stretch of California beachfront looks like a far cry from Vietnam. But when our Hanoi team at Alive & Thrive, an infant nutrition project, produced two TV spots to promote exclusive breastfeeding for Vietnamese babies, the head of a U.S. non-profit called MOMS Orange Country took notice and sent us an e-mail we never anticipated.
The U.S. organization had been battling a local crisis in prenatal care since 1992. Their CEO, Pamela Pimentel, explained that, “Even though Orange County has the illusion of wealth, 48 percent of the 40,000 babies born here in 2010 began their lives in poverty.” Each year the non-profit helps 3,500 mothers, their babies, and families have healthy pregnancies and a healthy start to life: 20 percent of their clientele is Vietnamese. Pimentel had been seeking culturally appropriate ways to promote breastfeeding in the mothers’ own language.
“The YouTube video in Vietnamese is one of the best breastfeeding promotion visuals I have ever seen,” wrote Pimentel, “and I have been promoting breastfeeding for my entire 35-year nursing career!” She immediately asked for our production team—an Ogilvy & Mather office based right here in Vietnam.
Alive & Thrive is an initiative to improve infant and young child feeding practices in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia from 2009 to 2014. Our goal is to increase rates of exclusive breastfeeding and improve complementary feeding practices for more than 16 million children under two years old, as well as create program models that can be scaled up worldwide. Part of Vietnam’s behavior-change strategy is a national TV campaign for exclusive breastfeeding, which ensures optimal development during a baby’s first six months: a window of opportunity that prevents deaths and sets the stage for a lifetime of healthy growth and brain development, especially urgent in a country like Vietnam, where 29 percent of children had stunted growth in 2010.
Our focus groups revealed that Vietnamese audiences have a soft spot for talking babies—so that is what we gave them. In one advertisement, a baby chats with his friend about why he doesn’t need water; the second baby then relays what he has learned to his mother. Initial feedback found our stars adorable, but the proof will be in changed behavior: while breastfeeding is a natural act, it is also something that must be learned. Vietnamese babies sometimes drink water on hot days or to rinse their mouths after feeding, as well as the liquid left after boiling rice, fortified with sugar. Baby formula companies now compound these challenges with ads that keep growing by the year, necessitating a counter-campaign like Alive & Thrive’s.
Our first round of Vietnam breastfeeding spots ran on national TV from November 2011 to March 2012, and just as we are gearing up to measure their impact in four provinces, Pimentel has given us a glowing evaluation from an ocean away. “Thanks so much for your help,” she wrote, “and thank you for all that you do for babies in some of the most impoverished countries!”
As we in the global health community talk about scaling up successful interventions, I’m heartened to see that our one program can give children better lives not only in Vietnam but in countries around the world—even in places like Orange County, known for fabulous wealth.