Baby Barnum

The thin line between hype and fraud.


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.

NEXT: ... Jason, Freddy, God, Spock, Chucky...

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  1. This is just like the time we sued the makers of “The Never Ending Story” for false advertising.

    1. Yeah, and what about Grape Nuts? You open the box – no grapes, no nuts!

  2. With the Baby Einstein series, it’s to keep the tots transfixed for a bit while the parents take a break.

    That was my wife’s primary reason for buying them. I told her that the videos could not have any educational value.

    Meanwhile, it isn’t clear why courts and regulators should be involved in the issue.

    It is clear to me: The State has overstepped its bounds.

    1. As a parent, baby mozart was a lifesaver. Baby crack is what we call it. My kid wore that disc and the DVD player out.

      She’s six now and she’s tops in her class for reading and math by a healthy margin. Ergo, it makes your kid smart.

  3. What would P T Barnum say?

  4. 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.

    You call it angst, I call it stupidity. And keep-up-with-the-Joneses. So if some parents are dumb enough or enough of a pair of dinks to be affected by this stuff, there’s really no reason to pity them.

  5. It’s all about unsubstantiated claims. If they say that Baby Einstein will make your kid smarter, then they have to substantiate that claim with science–e.g., studies, etc. The problem I have with that here is that I think there’s a distinction between saying let’s start educating kids young and use this neat medium for it and bogus advertising claims. Note that this line of regulatory policy doesn’t require the statement to be fraudulent, only that it be inadequately supported (in the regulator’s mind) by science.

    The problem here looks to be that the theory du jour is that TV is bad for infants. Naturally, that’s probably as specious as the advertising claims being made. Most studies like that are.

  6. After the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood organized a class action lawsuit, the Walt Disney Company offered a refund to parents who purchased its Baby Einstein videos

    We have a whole set of these, and ironically, there is not a commercial to be found on any of them. Mission Accomplished!

  7. Can I market the Collected Works of the Three Stooges as a self-defense course?

      1. Am I alone in thinking, as a child, that Moe was Adolf Hitler?

          1. Sure looked like Hitler to me.

  8. Baby Jag ?r Nyfiken was un-jackable-to.

  9. Staying at a Holiday Inn Express last night did not in fact make me smarter. Where’s a lawyer?

  10. Commercial free childhood?

    A necessary condition for creating the New Socialist Man, I suppose.

    1. Incorrect. That would be a prerequisite for an Old Socialist Man.

      1. New Traditionalist Man?

  11. so, plopping my kid down in front of the TV won’t make him any smarter? there oughta be a law against this!!

  12. Hey, is anyone going to the Spitzer lecture at the Harvard ethics center? I think we have a lot to learn from the guy about ethics and correct behavior.

    1. Jesus, I thought you were joking. Holy crapshait, I gotta show this to my Mom who’s lectured me throughout my life non-stop about the importance of “reputation”.

    2. Tickets are free and can be obtained in person at the Harvard Box Office at 1350 Massachusetts Avenue. Tickets are also available by phone for a fee by calling 617.496.2222.

      Are you guys thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?

      1. If you’re thinking that someone should show up with Ashley Dupr? as a date, the answer is yes.

        I’d heckle the crap out of the guy if I lived in the area.

        1. The difference is that the people at Harvard love him bending and twisting the law, morality, ethics, and God knows what else to stick it to large businesses, without regard to their actual wrongdoing. Not to mention that Spitzer’s “crusades” always seemed to be for the purpose of keeping him in the limelight and not for any tangible good.

          This and Arnold’s recent FU have proven that you can’t make up stuff funnier than reality.

          1. Khaaaaaaaaannnnnn Spitzzzzzzeeeerrrrrr

            1. Oh, man, that would so rule. How much would it take to get Shatner to do that? I mean, there, in person.

              1. More than you got, dude. Shatner doesn’t get out of bed for less than…less than…well, whatever it is, it’s a lot.

                1. No, no, not me. Someone with money. Surely there’s someone with money who hates Spitzer. Like the GOP. Someone. Something.

                  This has to be.

        2. Actually, tickets are free if you call the number. How many tickets do you think could get held up if we request a few with an astroturn campaign. Imagine spitzer speaking to a nearly empty room…

          1. Do it, Paul. Do it, and someone at Reason can work with someone with money–Fox?–to arrange the Shatner visit.

          2. *astroturf

            I did that thing where as I was hitting the submit button, I was yelling “Oh shit I got a typo!”

            You know, like when you’re closing the car door, and as you’re closing it, you’re yelling “Oh no my keys are in there!”

  13. The New York Times reports on comments by the French foreign minister:

    On Iran, Mr. Kouchner said that the violence of demonstrations on Wednesday was very important, another sign that the Iranians “are losing time, not gaining time” by their refusal to deal seriously with the Security Council and the West on the issue of nuclear enrichment.

    He said that there would be no discussion of new Security Council sanctions against Iran until the end of the year at the request of Washington. “Our American friends ask us to wait until the end of the year,” he said. “It’s not us.” The Obama administration wants to see if Iran will respond to an offer of negotiations, Mr. Kouchner said. “We’re waiting for talks, but where are the talks?”…;emc=rss

  14. I don’t know which to despise more: the state-suckling scumbags at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood or the craven parents who bought the videos and then hopped on the class action wagon.

  15. Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood?

    Yes, let’s shelter our children from the world a little bit more, that way they can be complete innocents when they hit the age of eighteen. My goodness, what a stupid idea.

  16. Do as I say, not as I do.

    1. Hey, I’ll give you this. At least you eschew the rampant immorality of threaded comments.

      Yes, I’m aware of the irony.

  17. What the Israelis Found on the Ship
    The cargo, en route to Syria:

    ? 566,220 7.62 calibre rifle bullets

    ? 20,100 F1 fragment grenades

    ? 5,680 60 mm mortar shells

    ? 2,316 81 mm mortar shells

    ? 774 120 mm mortar shells

    ? 690 122 mm rockets

    ? 106 artillery shells

    ? 2,125 107 mm rockets

    ? 685 rocket fuses…..1&ob=4

  18. The cargo, en route to Syria:

    ? 566,220 7.62 calibre rifle bullets

    Could it have been a shipment of 7.62 x 54R cartridges? Because I would like to have some for my M91/30 Mosin-Nagant.

    1. I would take those 7.62s. My MAK-90 eats those up.

    2. Your Mosin, my ass.

      My PKM is hungry.

  19. If the world does not end in 2012 can people who saw that stupid movie get a refund?

    1. A saw a billboard for this a few days ago… so what is this thing about?

  20. Kevin..hilarious

    I do have to say that I bought the Baby Einstein Lullaby album on iTunes for our newborn and actually listen to it myself. Very relaxing.

  21. I bought the Baby Einstein Lullaby album on iTunes for our newborn and actually listen to it myself. Very relaxing.

    And what have we learned from this experience?

  22. Oddly enough, “Baby Einstein” gets 3 million hits on google and “baby Kafka” and “Baby Nietzsche” both get around 300; “Baby Bakunin” only 21.

  23. 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.

    The company promised “educational content,” “a rich and interactive learning experience,” even “greater brain capacity.”

    Those claims sound pretty explicit to me, especially the last one. Personally I dont think any media can expand your brain capacity, but that doesn’t mean a company should be allowed to advertise it as being able to do it without some sort of proof.

    I don’t see why suing them for fraud/false advertising is objectionable if they are making unsubstantiated claims like this.

    1. While the lawsuit may be technically legal, the motives of the people participating in said lawsuit are questionable.

      If you bought the product to occupy your child and nothing else, than its disingenuous, at best, to ask for your money back.

      On the other hand, if you and your spouse sincerely believe that plopping your child in front of the tv will increase their intelligence then your
      child does not have the genetic wherewithal to rise above troglodyte.
      Therefore any learning apparatus will seem defective.

      Post Script, I’m glad I was hatched, fully formed thus obviating a need for such things.

      capitol l

  24. CT,

    I get your point, but I think is a weird area for this. If I sell books on Shakespeare and say the books are educational and will expand your intellectual horizons, is that an unsubstantiated claim?

  25. Forgive my hazy memory, but wasn’t the whole Baby Einstein schtick based on a real study* that showed playing classical music even while your baby was in the womb would increase its IQ?

    *study considered flawed… and didn’t some governor of Georgia also offer free classical music CD’s to pregnant moms because of this?

  26. Can we start suing our legislators who pass laws based on a false premise or unsubstantiated claim? Why are corporations who have to appeal to our self interest held to a higher standard?

  27. All I have to say is that Looney Toons and other similar cartoons are the only reason I have an appreciation for classical music; whether it made me smarter or not.

    1. Everything I know about culture came from Bugs Bunny cartoons…

    2. And everything I know about economics came from the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse.

  28. I bought several Baby Gates, thinking they would turn my niece into a billionaire. Who do I sue?

  29. I have a 1 1/2 yo boy and we watch Baby Einstein videos together. A typical scene shows footage of a real kangaroo followed by a toy kangaroo and then the text “kangaroo” pops up and the classical music is overdubbed with someone who says “kangaroo”. For the purpose of showing a young child what a kangaroo is that would seem to qualify as educational. If not, what is?

  30. You mean my baby will still read even if I don’t buy the video on the looky box? I’m shocked, I tells ya! Shocked!

    My infants have all watched hockey games with me just fine, and they’re learning important life skills. I think they like the movement and the bright colors.

  31. Credit to Disney for selling DVDs of interns with puppets and public domain music for $20 a pop.

    1. Somebody has to do it, so why not a familiar brand name?

  32. Where do we go to be free of the message these buttinskis are advertising?

  33. My kids are a little older, so we missed out on all these videos, but the little drama Jesse Walker describes reminds me once again that Competitive Parenting is one of the funnest spectator sports there is!

  34. Both the Baby Einstein people and the anti-TV people are motivated by the same premise – that children are blank slates that can be molded by their environment. Unfortunately there’s more and more evidence that that premise is not valid. A child with the genetic makeup for low intelligence will not get smarter no matter how much Mozart you play him, a child born with “smart genes” is probably going to survive some TV watching just fine.

    1. While I solidly consider myself a member of the anti-TV group, I agree with this 100%

  35. First Amendment may not be an issue here. Baby Einstein products seem to have made an objective scientific claim about it’s value, not a subjective critical claim about it’s content. Whether any consumers took those claims seriously is another issue.

    I have seen some of the Baby Einstein videos. They made me more convinced I did the right thing by letting my kids watch Speed Racer and Marx Brothers tapes when they were that age.

  36. My kids love the Baby Einstein videos. They watch cool things move around while classical music plays. Isn’t that 1200x better than Tom and Jerry?

  37. My daughter loved the DVDs. I never used it as a way to “trnasfix” her while I tried to get something done. I always watched them with her. She is now in Kindergarten and reads at 2nd grade level, does simple math (addition and subtraction), was able to tell different colors at 18 months old and loves to draw and paint. The music pieces are excellent. I do think they make babies smarter and I would recommend them to any new parents. I don’t know why the fuss about the class action suit.

  38. @Bubba: “Isn’t that 1200x better than Tom and Jerry?”

    I remember a Tom and Jerry short with a soundtrack that included Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude,” “Prelude in C Minor,” and other classics. Lots of stuff was moving around, too. And breaking and falling. This particular short won an Oscar.

    Middleclassmom: Could it be that you have a very intelligent child on whom you spent the time to develop a love for reading and learning? Maybe the videos are helpful, but the way you phrased it, it sounded a little like you’re selling yourself short.

  39. Now if only fetuses exposed to being read writings by Marx and Lenin while still in the womb by socialist Democrat fathers agonizing over the possibility the child may develop abnormally if not given the proper knowledge soon enough could only be allowed a refund for the books cover prices.

    Tom and Jerry on the other hand was quality programming. No matter how many times we see the little mouse dude sock it to that dense cat it never gets old.

    1. Baby Marx and Lenin? One sure way to guarantee a severely retarded and antisocial child..

  40. All over some sounds and images? LOL! When a big enough natural disaster hits, all of this triviality will go by the wayside awfully fast.

  41. good,very good post,thanks,it is very useful for me

  42. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets..

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