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Baby Einstein gets spanked

After complaints that its baby videos had been marketed deceptively, Disney succumbs to pressure from angry parents and offers refunds.

By Carol Lloyd

Okay, perhaps spanked doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Baby Einstein has offered to give back its allowance to the tune of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. The Disney-owned maker of the wildly popular (and controversial) infant media juggernaut pledged to refund any of its products until March 10, 2010.

How did something as seemingly innocuous as a bunch of baby videos with triangles bouncing to Bach end up becoming so contentious?

The videos, first marketed as educational toys for babies and toddlers, have been at the center of a battle over babies’ brains for years. According to a 2003 study cited in the New York Times, one in three U.S. babies from six months to 2 years old had at least one Baby Einstein video. Despite the company’s success, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against screen time for children under the age of 2.

In 2006 angry parents led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Baby Einstein’s marketing of its products as educational was deceptive. In response to the complaint, the company altered its marketing materials and removed parent testimonials from its website; the commission declined to bring any action against Baby Einstein. Citing studies that suggest screen time with similar products can inhibit language development, the CCFC continued pressing Disney to offer parents more than truth in advertising.

In a testily worded statement, Baby Einstein general manager Susan McLain contends that the current brouhaha is much ado about nothing: Its products have always had a customer-satisfaction guarantee. But unlike Baby Einstein’s normal offer (valid for 60 days from the date of purchase with a sales receipt), this “enhanced consumer-satisfaction guarantee” is valid for five years from the purchase date and requires no sales receipt.

Bottom line? If you bought the videos and no longer want them, pack them up and get the refund!

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"I showed these videos to my children but I also interacted with them at the same time. I spoke to them when they were babies in foreign languages so that the first word they spoke was in a foreign language - such as 'agua'. They are now multilingual teenagers. Parents who use the videos in this way are not brainwashing their babies so they can be manipulated by Madison Ave. advertisers. Babies are little sponges that learn language at a very young age and they learn what they are exposed to. It's not magic and you don't need a double blind, crossover, peer reviewed study by Yale Ph.D.s in the NEJM to know that this is true. I began reading to my children when they were 11 months old and taught them the alphabet, counting to 25 and all the colors by the time they were two. The second half of the 20th century saw great advances in our knowledge of child development. Dr. Burton White, was a pioneer for some of these advances and the movement to educate parents so they could optimize their own children's development. The woman who developed 'Baby Einstein' was an entrepreneur who participated in this movement. Kudos to her. When I saw one of the videos being played to a group of 2-4 year olds in a children's center, they all (even the ones who were doing something else) immediately jumped up dancing and marching around in a circle to the music with big smiles on their faces. Would the critics rather have them listen to Rap music? My childern also watched 'School House Rock!' and Rock N Learn videos amongst many others. They are on the 'A Honor Roll' in school and go to a performing arts camp named 'Interlochen' where you audition to get in. One of them played one of the leading roles in 'Annie Get Your Gun'. They aren't hypnotized by TV. They play football, basketball, baseball and soccer. They all play musical instruments and one of them can play Chopin on the piano. So I say to the critics of these videos: Where is your uncontestable scientific evidence that these things don't have a positive effect on the intellectual development of children. (N.B. I am trained as a biochemist and physician and have published peer reviewed scientific articles.)"
"come on people..just wise tv/video, etc can help a child except you as a parent. there's also a thin line between a genius and insanity"
"As a working mother I am grateful for Baby Einsteins. My daughters now age 6 and 3 loved them (and still do). They were able to be entertained (and learn a few things like what a wombat is - I had no idea before BE)while I cook dinner and not be baraged every 5 minutes with commercials. I need that downtime (and so do the kids) to decompress from a hard day. Also in order to truly reap the benefits of BE you need to watch WITH your kids and not expect it to miraculously teach them on its own. I actually catch my daughter humming the classical music that she learned from watching BE. "
"I bought the original videos so that my child would be exposed to foreign language. I am not sure whether they helped, but they certainly did not hurt. Why on earth would I need a refund? That is just plain silly. Those parents wanting their money back should be ashamed of themselves. The baby Einstein videos were started by a fellow mom working out of her garage. She has a great success story that was inspirational to me. Shame, Shame, Shame on you greedy people!"
"Ok, if you believed that your child under two was actually learning something from these videos you don't deserve your money back. Come on, people. These are fun videos that children like to watch. If you plunked your kid down and thought he/she was being educated, you need some education yourself. Keep the videos and be glad that your child was entertained. Stop thinking you should get $ back when you used it and enjoyed it. Entitlement mentality runs rampant in this country."