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Baby Einstein under siege

An extraordinary war of words has broken out following the decision by Baby Einstein to offer no-questions-asked refunds to any customer that purchased one of their DVDs in the last five years.

Although the refund policy was announced early last month, it has only recently attracted attention due to the efforts of long-time critic Susan Linn, a director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In a front page article that appeared in Saturday's New York Times, Linn claims that the policy was instituted in response to mounting pressure from her organization.

In 2006, CCFC sent a letter of complaint to the Federal Trade Commission regarding the educational claims made by Baby Einstein and another company, Brainy Baby. Although the FTC never took formal action as a result of the complaint, the two companies significantly changed the way they marketed their products, dropping references to their "educational" benefits and instead describing them in more general terms as aids to parent-child interaction.

Not satisfied with the FTC's response and still critical of Baby Einstein's approach, lawyers for CCFC threatened a class-action law suit for unfair and deceptive marketing practices. Although Baby Einstein claims that the limited-time refund policy is an extension of customer satisfaction policies that were already in place, it is clear that it was designed to head-off any further action. Meanwhile, Baby Einstein General Manager, Susan McLain, has gone on the offensive, posting an open letter on the Baby Einstein web site that is harshly critical of Linn and her attempts to discredit the Baby Einstein product range.

The Baby Einstein company was founded in the mid-90s by Julie Ainger-Clark, who shot the first Baby Einstein video in the basement of her Alpharetta, GA home. It was released in early 1997 and made an immediate impact in the huge parenting marketplace. The company's early marketing messages clearly implied that the simple DVDs, containing numbers, shapes, bright colors and soothing music, could help a child's early cognitive development and accelerate their learning skills.

After the success of the first Baby Einstein video, other DVD titles quickly followed, including Baby Shakespeare and Baby Van Gogh. There was also a range of Baby Bach and Baby Mozart CDs. In 2001, Baby Einstein was acquired by the Walt Disney Company and a full-range of books, toys, flash cards and other baby products soon followed.

Meanwhile the DVDs had become an essential go-to resource for millions of parents with young children. A 2003 study revealed that one-third of all U.S. households with infants between the age of 6 months and 2 years had at least one Baby Einstein video.

The CCFC actions have not been the only troubles facing Baby Einstein. Earlier this year, the company was broadsided by an American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under 2 should not receive any screen time at all. This followed a study by Harvard University, which found that there was no relationship between the amount of TV watched and a child's progress in language or visual motor skills. Since then, there have been numerous other studies that suggest screen time for very young children is potentially harmful.

Although the Baby Einstein web site has dropped all references to a direct educational benefit, suggestions that its products can help in a child's development are still there. The New York Times article quotes Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation:

"My impression is that parents really believe these videos are good for their children, or at the very least, not really bad for them. To me, the most important thing is reminding parents that getting down on the floor to play with children is the most educational thing they can do."

Comment by TheOnlineMom, posted 10/26/2009, 5:19 PM:

You are right, Molly, most parents feel that way too. The videos were, mostly really well done and they were fun to watch. We, as parents, knew that research was limited and bought them for our children because they were soothing etc, and not b/c we thought they would turn our kids into geniuses! thanks for your comments! MONICA
Comment by Molly Gold, posted 10/26/2009, 11:56 AM:

We loved these videos because the music was SO soothing and appropriate - the kids really connected with them. As in all things, its ALWAYS our job as parents to be vigilant and make choices for our children. Its not Baby Einstein's job to educate and develop my child's intellect and its not their mistake if I overexpose my child to excessive media in any format. This is a great company with lovely products that are superior in so many ways. I wish them well!
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