Own any Baby Einstein DVDs? Unhappy that your child isn't smarter as a result? Well, now you can get your money back. Depending on which articles you read, the refund offer -- which has been available since September but was only splashed around in the media this week -- is either a hangdog admission of fraudulent marketing or the result of a one-woman smear campaign against Disney, the parent company of Baby Einstein.
The whole story actually goes back to 2006, when Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, began campaigning against the Baby Einstein company for displaying on its packaging that the DVDs were educational. As a result of the group's initial complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, the word "educational" was dropped from the DVDs' packaging and marketing materials.
But the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a group whose mission is "to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers," continued to push, this time threatening a class-action lawsuit to claim compensation for those who bought the DVDs thinking they could give their child an intellectual edge. In a letter from the group's lawyers to The New York Times, the group states: "The Walt Disney Company's entire Baby Einstein marketing regime is based on express and implied claims that their videos are educational and beneficial for early childhood development." The group's lawyers state that such benefits are impossible because some studies show that toddler television exposure leads to attention problems later in childhood.
The Disney company fired back in an open letter posted on its website. In the letter, General Manager Susan McLain writes, "We strongly believe that, unlike Linn, our consumers find value in our product, and rather than continue to fight with her, we decided it to leave it up to those consumers. That is why we extended a refund policy that was already in place. Although she would like to claim otherwise, there is nothing extraordinary about a company's willingness to stand behind its product. To the contrary, it is the strongest possible show of confidence in it."
So how do parents feel about the Baby Einstein videos? We checked the hundreds of user reviews posted on Amazon.com for the videos. Most of the videos get very positive reviews, but do parents think the DVDs will make their kid smarter? Not really. A few parents say they think the videos help teach their kids about color or music, but mainly, parents talk about how the videos mesmerize their kids and keep them happy for half an hour.
So parents sure seem to like the Baby Einstein DVDs. But what about the childhood-development studies indicating that infant television habits can lead to attention issues and other problems down the road?
Earlier this year, researchers from Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School revealed findings of their study, which involved 872 children monitored from birth to three years old. As reported on CNN, "Contrary to parents' perceptions that TV viewing is beneficial to their children's brain development, we found no evidence of cognitive benefit from watching TV during the first two years of life," the authors wrote.
Okay, so watching videos may not be giving your child a mental edge, but is it doing actual damage? The Harvard study says probably not. Marie Evans Schmidt, one of the lead authors of the Harvard study, "did not find evidence of harm or benefit of TV viewing."
But another study published in June 2009 in the Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that television watching among babies and toddlers -- whether baby-oriented or not -- could inhibit language learning. That's because watching TV is a passive event; while you're watching television, you're not talking or engaging with your child.
Obviously, this is a question that will continue to be debated. In the meantime, if you decide you're unhappy with your Baby Einstein DVDs, you can exchange them for a Baby Einstein book or CD, or request a refund of the current purchase price.