Baby Einstein is Dead! Long Live Baby Einstein!

There was a lot of hoopla about Baby Einstein over the weekend. To understand it, you need a brief backstory – and then some deeper backstory, too.

A month and a half ago, Disney announced in a press release that it was going to begin issuing refunds for its Baby Einstein videos: buyers of the DVDs can return them to Disney for $15.99 or exchange them for other products.

However, nobody noticed – not until this past Friday, when the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCCF) issued its own press release. In that statement, the CCCF claimed that the refund offer was a victory for the organization, borne out of its ongoing campaign against Baby Einstein and the makers of other baby DVDs.

Within hours, the New York Times suggested that CCCF had won a major concession, and Disney's refund offer "appear[s] to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect," an assessment soon repeated by the Wall Street Journal and in other publications.

Today, an angry Disney fired back. Susan McLain, the General Manager of Baby Einstein, wrote that the CCCF press release was a baseless publicity stunt by the CCCF director, Susan Linn. Disney isn't admitting the baby videos are ineffective. Instead, the company believes that consumers find value in the product. They said a money-back guarantee is actually their standard policy.

This battle actually goes back a few years. In 2006, CCFC – an organization affiliated with Harvard Medical School – filed a FTC complaint against Disney and another manufacturer, Brainy Baby, alleging that the companies were engaging in false and deceptive advertising. According to the complaint, both companies were advertising that their videos were educational and beneficial for babies' development.

But their evidence against Baby Einstein's false advertising wasn't very strong, because by then, Disney had toned down its claims. It was only calling the Baby Einstein line "a rich and interactive learning experience."

Before the FTC made any decision, then President George Bush lauded Baby Einstein during his State of the Union address in January 2007. He heralded the creator of the company and videos, Julie Aigner-Clark, as "represent[ing] the great enterprising spirit of America."

Later that year, University of Washington scholars including Dr. Andrew Meltzoff and others, published two studies on how watching baby videos lead to a decrease in language acquisition for infants and toddlers. We wrote about this study in NurtureShock.

So who was going to win, Bush or the scientists?

In December 2007, the FTC split the baby. The FTC said the science seemed a bit confused and inconclusive, but more importantly, both DVD companies had recently changed their marketing campaigns. Both had removed overt claims that watching the videos improved children's development. Disney's website had changed to focus on how the videos were a tool to enhance parent-child interaction. So no FTC action was necessary.

This past weekend, a couple bloggers, Joe Miller JD and Jonathan Liu wondered aloud if actually it was the publication of our book, NurtureShock, that triggered Disney's policy change. Our book came out the same week Disney issued its refund policy.

We honestly don't know if we were a factor at all. But to write NurtureShock, we did something the CCCF apparently did not – we went back and got the entire history of the Baby Einstein company's evolving claims about their products, back to Aigner-Clark's very first press release. We used an internet archive called the Wayback Machine, which allows users to go back in time to see what a website looked like years ago.

The first 1997 press release from Baby Einstein made absolutely incredible claims about how its videos prevented neuron brain death:

"The Baby Einstein Company today announced the release of Baby Einstein, the first developmental video to combine visual and linguistic experiences that facilitate the development of the brain in infants ages one to 12 months.... According to cognitive research, dedicated neurons in the brain's auditory cortex are formed by repeated exposure to phonemes, the unique sounds of language. Studies show that if these neurons are not used, they may die. Through exposure to phonemes in seven languages, Baby Einstein contributes to increased brain capacity."

Baby Einstein had that statement on its website for years. But there was no proof that the videos changed brain development at all – on a neural or cognitive level.

Over this decade, Disney has completely dialed back the claims about Baby Einstein. It could afford to, because it still benefits from the suggestive power of the brand – from the false claims made long ago.