Australian children’s entertainer Jimmy Rees has been part of the wallpaper of my family’s life for over a decade. Along with an assortment of wisecracking puppets, in his Jimmy Giggle persona Rees has been the human face of the free-to-air ABC Kids channel, serving as a parenting co-pilot as he hosts children’s programming on Australia’s national broadcaster (as I type, he has just popped on TV in front of my 4 year old). He appeals to children and parents alike – my kids sing the Giggle and Hoot toothbrushing song at bedtime, and I know quite a few women who, on seeing Rees at an event, have handed the phone to their kids to snap a photo of mum with Jimmy Giggle.

Rees is also well known in his personal life as a father, especially after an horrific incident in 2019 where one of his infant twins required a blood transfusion after a botched tongue tie snip. The procedure was performed to facilitate breastfeeding – which his wife Tori has publicly discussed as being important to her. As a dad who has supported a mum breastfeeding twins to toddlerhood, he has up close and personal experience of what breastfeeding is and how it works. Which is why it was a total shocker to see Rees on his Facebook page this week plugging toddler milk drink in a paid advertorial video.

Toddler milk drinks are big business in Australia. The Australian breastmilk substitute and baby food market is growing exponentially, with the largest market share held by milk formulas for children aged over 12 months. That means over $150 million annually being spent on a product which is not only entirely unnecessary, but which contradicts nutritional guidelines and poses a serious risk to child health.

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHRMC) infant feeding guidelines recommend breastfeeding to 12 months and beyond, with whole cow’s milk suitable as a substitute for toddlers and children who are not breastfed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that toddler milks are “unnecessary” and “unsuitable” as a breastmilk substitute. This is because toddler milk drinks are an ultra processed ‘fake food’ containing palm oil, synthetic vitamins, and up to 55% sugar. Toddler milks displace a child’s appetite for whole foods, interfere with nutrient absorption, and contribute to dental decay. They have been exposed by consumer advocate groups as a predatory product with advertising claims which don’t stack up. But despite the evidence against toddler milks, they continue to be marketed as a beneficial and normal part of an early childhood diet.

This parental insecurity is precisely the angle exploited by Rees, who has recently left his ABC Kids role, and has lately been very active using his social media accounts for paid product endorsements. In the video Rees plays an exaggerated version of himself, his wife, and sons, offering his ‘children’ a range of fruit, veggies and meal options which are rejected one by one until the milk drink is offered and accepted. This is a total dupe of course – what parent would hand a sippy cup of soft drink or a handful of lollies to a child who had just rejected a banana? Yet this is the kind of dietary trade-off being packaged up as a picture of health and wellbeing, for $30+ for an 800g tin.

Unfortunately, the product in question isn’t the only questionable thing being sold in Rees’ video. The premise of the ad, titled “When Mum Has A Night Off”, relies on the trope of the clueless dad who can’t cope with parenting when mum is away. It’s a neat dodge around the usual ‘mummy wars’ platform of breastmilk substitute marketing, but it’s insulting to both mothers and fathers – particularly so when it’s clear that the family Rees is caricaturing is his own. It’s also bizarre, given that Rees has been quite outspoken about being intentional and involved in his fathering.

The video also depends on the target audience being accepting of the idea that mothers are so overwhelmed that they need to escape their family in order to cope. But this family has two adults – why is only one of them burned out by domestic and caring responsibilities to the point of needing a night away to recover? Why are we so ready to swallow the lie that caring and cooking is mum’s responsibility to be freed from occasionally (a further layer to the ‘incompetent dad’ nonsense), or that a mother’s needs can’t be met in her own home? This stereotype is absolutely fundamental to formula norms – the ’10pm bottle so mum can sleep’, training baby to take a bottle ‘so mum can get away’, the idea that breastfeeding is ‘too demanding’ etc etc etc. The formula industry knows that tired, stressed mums are vulnerable to the idea that a tin of formula will reduce her load – a load which usually also includes the mental labour of worrying if a toddler is eating enough.

I was particularly grossed out interested to note that, watching the video closely, it’s apparent that Rees doesn’t prepare the formula according to the instructions on the tin (he adds the powder first, and it is not clear if the water has been boiled and cooled, and he definitely does not wash his hands). This may well be because Rees, as the father of breastfed children, is personally inexperienced in formula preparation – although it’s pretty disturbing that the brand’s marketing team didn’t pick up on this.

It is also possible that like many families, Rees is in the habit of preparing formula incorrectly, and therefore unsafely. I don’t want to hear about how water is safe in wealthy countries, because in addition to being classist and racist it is simply untrue. In Australia we have many communities on boil-only water alerts at any given time, and any country is only a natural disaster away from water insecurity. The precarious infant feeding situation in New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquake is a sobering case study. In any case, it’s not only the water which may contain pathogens – formula milk drink powder is not sterile, and must be prepared with water at 70°C in order to kill any pathogens present in the powder. Serious illness and death has resulted from feeding infants contaminated breastmilk substitutes, which may contain Cronobacter sakazakii, Salmonella enterica, Staphylococcus aureus and more (don’t forget the yummy COVID-19 on those unwashed hands).

But at the end of the day, Rees and his own family are unlikely to be seriously vulnerable to the marketing spin or the risks associated with the use of toddler milk drinks as a substitute for family foods. Rather, they will be able to afford better nutritional options (such as the healthy family meal delivery service spruiked by his wife on instagram), thanks to accepting cash gained by substituting industry claims for informed decision making, all shouldered by families whose are paying $30-$40 per tin to subsidise the advertising budget.

And that’s the real sting in the tail here. This is not just disappointment in a minor celebrity for endorsing a dodgy product. Jimmy Rees has spent years being essentially invited into Australian homes and spending time with our kids – there is genuine trust and goodwill which has been built. By partnering with a toddler milk manufacturer, that trust has been taken advantage of by a predatory industry whose product puts kids at risk of harm. This is how the breastmilk substitute industry operates – if trust can’t be gained – just hijack it, because once they get through a family’s door they have a customer for life. Ultimately, Rees has also been exploited for industry interests which stand to gain far more than whatever portion was allotted to an online influencing partnership. It remains to be seen if the damage to his reputation among the hundreds of mums pushing back in the video’s comment section was worth it.