Film fans rejoice: You can now receive a refund if a movie doesn't live up to its hype. Or at least you can if the picture is aimed at an audience of infants.
The movies in question are the videos made by Baby Einstein, a brand associated with gentle, plotless pictures for the cradles-and-diapers set. These were initially sold as self-improvement tools for tots: The company promised "educational content," "a rich and interactive learning experience," even "greater brain capacity." Today it's a bit less exuberant about its products' potential. In 2006 the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood complained to the Federal Trade Commission that "no research or evidence exists to support" such claims; Baby Einstein's corporate parent, Disney, responded by ceasing to describe the DVDs as educational. Thanks to that and related changes on the Baby Einstein website, the commission decided "not to recommend enforcement action at this time," though it left the door open to a more muscular response down the road. That wasn't enough for the Campaign, which felt the brand carried an implicit claim of intellectual uplift, with the programs' very titles—Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart, Baby Da Vinci—reinforcing the idea that the discs didn't merely entertain the youngsters but were good for them.
So the group organized a class action lawsuit. Disney settled, and in September it announced it was offering its customers a refund. From now through March, households can return up to four Baby Einstein DVDs for $15.99 apiece. You need only send in the videos to get the money: You don't have to provide a receipt, and you don't have to demonstrate you bought those DVDs with their alleged educational value in mind.
That last point is more significant than it might sound. The history of cinema is littered with pictures that pretended to offer some redeeming social value (a morality play, an avant-garde experiment) though both the industry and the audience understood that the main appeal was something less ennobling. In most cases, the not-so-secret second agenda was to look at naked people. With the Baby Einstein series, it's to keep the tots transfixed for a bit while the parents take a break. In a TV-free home, this might be accomplished by putting the baby beneath a mobile. With a DVD player, the baby can watch a mobile, a puppet, or some other toy cavorting on a screen.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is aware of this additional motive. Indeed, its original complaint to the FTC included quotes from customers whose frank comments once appeared on the Baby Einstein site: "thanks to you, I get to take a shower every day" and "It has given opportunities to tidy around the house - or just a breather" and "while I shower or wash the dishes, I can just pop in a video and he is completely glued to the television for the whole duration of the show." Now, thanks to the settlement, those parents can send back the DVDs, which the kids will have outgrown by now anyway, and get a little cash for their trouble. Progress!
Not that I have anything against a parent who wants half an hour to clean the kitchen and take a bath. Indeed, I have more sympathy for those ordinary human needs than for the fantasy that you're giving your one-year-old a leg up by showing her a movie of some puppets marching around to a synthesizer performance of "Wellington's Victory." When my daughter was born, I quickly came to dislike Baby Einstein and its imitators, with their No Child Left Behind approach to the playroom: They seemed to prey on the angst of nervous middle-class parents who see every loose statistical correlation that gets mentioned in the news as a diktat establishing the sole scientifically approved approach to raising a child.
But the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood feeds the same sort of fears. (Any choice you face as a parent, from breastfeeding to the optimal number of siblings, will produce an battery of buttinskis on both sides, all eager to explain why their preferences are the One Best Way.) The Campaign's co-founder, Susan Linn, tells parents that "TV viewing interferes with cognitive development, language development and regular sleep patterns," warns that a "preschooler's risk for obesity increases by six per cent for every hour of TV watched per day," and announces, "Research also suggests that the more time babies spend in front of TV, the less time they spend engaging in two activities that really do facilitate learning: interacting with parents away from screens, and spending time actively involved in creative play." Such scholarship is real, though its conclusions aren't as settled as Linn might think. But the reasonable reactions to the research are all modest and commonsensical: Play with your kids, watch what they eat, and don't park a baby in front of a television for hours. It's much less sensible to fret that you're damaging your six-month-old for life if you let him stare at a pair of sheep exchanging baaaas while you take a short shower. Children are individuals, not statistics, and the context and quantity of their TV intake surely matters much more than whether they watch television at all.
Meanwhile, it isn't clear why courts and regulators should be involved in the issue. False advertising is a crime, but usually we allow some latitude when the product being pitched consists of speech. There are advice books out there whose suggestions are actively pernicious, but no one would dream of calling the FTC on the publishers for categorizing them as "self-help"; the First Amendment problems would be obvious. But 57 years after the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights protects motion pictures, moving images still seem to be held to a different standard.
Or at least they are when tiny children are involved. Hollywood can breathe easy: As of yet, there's no sign that anyone will be forced to pay a refund when a grown-up viewer discovers that An American Carol is not actually "an ingenious comedy" or that G.I. Joe is not in fact a film in which "evil never looked so good." The studios may even continue to get away with that hoariest of movie lies, "based on a true story"—but that phrase has a whiff of educational worth, so who knows?
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.