The brilliance of the Baby Einstein product line is in its branding strategy, beginning with its name. What parent would not want their child to grow up to become another genius like Albert Einstein?
(Historical note: Albert Einstein did not watch colorful videos with playful puppets and soothing classical music. He may have learned to play the violin by the age of five, but he did so without the use of instructional video.)
Baby Einstein is shrewd: they never, not in any of their promotional literature, claim that their products are designed to make babies smarter. In 2005, in an article in the Chicago Tribune, Baby Einstein VP of Marketing Rashmi Turner admitted that "Baby Einstein DVDs are "not research-based" and the company does not have any data showing that children learn anything from watching them." (In the same article, Dr. Susan Linn, psychologist at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School, said simply: "the baby video industry is a scam.")
But names have a powerful association. So they licensed the name of Einstein, because they knew that "Baby Couch Potato" won't move as many units.
Their web site states:
Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to engage babies and provide parents with tools to help expose their little ones to the world around them in playful and enriching ways — stimulating a baby's natural curiosity.
The videos are described as being from a baby's point of view-- and while that means mostly close-ups of colorful toys that swing, rock, spin, or move to keep their attention, I fear that what my infants are learning about the world around them is not so enriching:
- That wind-up toys and spinning tops keep time to classical music
- That nothing should appear in your visual field for longer than thirty seconds
- That all of the toys featured in the video are available for sale
When my children were born, and when they were infants, I spent much of my time exposing them to the world in what I hoped was a "playful and enriching" manner... but this involved talking to them, holding them, touching them, and taking them outside. I didn't pipe in classical music while I was doing so (and probably overdid it on the bluegrass and old-timey fiddle), but with my pediatrician's developmental checklist, I was watching for the ability to track Daddy's finger with his eyes, not to distinguish Bach from Tchaikovsky. Funnily enough, there was also no box marked "teach child how to watch television."
Baby Einstein positions itself as the leader/creator of the "infant developmental media category" and this is no doubt true. But this category is a marketing concept, not a child development one. An infant has many cognitive needs. His brain is rapidly preparing for the onset of language, as well as coping with the challenges of depth perception, vocalization and auditory feedback, recognizing parents, developing a proprioceptive map, turning towards sounds. None of these neurological steps and developmental milestones require the assistance of a video product, whether from Baby Einstein, Baby Genius, Calm Baby, or the other companies that have sprang up to fill the category. (Although perhaps showing my child the video will serve as prima facie evidence of my love for him, and letting him watch it will build the trust and intimacy so important to a secure, emotionally healthy child?)
"Baby Einstein videos are designed for parents to use with their babies so they can explore and discover the world together."
Julie Aigner-Clark meant for her videos to be teaching tools, "interactive blackboards" for parents to watch with their children and simultaneously talk, touch, and sing along with. But in practice, and intentionally or not, the videos serve a much more useful function for sleep deprived parents like myself: it allows them to take a shower for five minutes, or catnap on the sofa, without feeling guilty about strapping the wee bairn into the bouncy seat and leaving her alone. After all, she's absorbing "cultural" information, like how badly designed puppets can cavort to Beethoven played on a Casio*.
In August 2007, The Journal of Pediatrics published a study (Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in
Children Under Two) by Drs. Frederick Zimmerman, Dimitri Christakis, and Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington and and Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute.
The study found that among toddlers ages 17 to 24 months, there was no
significant effect (good or bad), on the results of a standard language
development test, the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development
Inventory. However, for infants ages 8 to 16 months, for each hour a
day watching DVDs or videos designed for babies correlated with lower
scores on the inventory, understanding an average of 6–8 fewer words than children who did not watch the videos.
In May 2006, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the FTC to act upon what they saw as deceptive advertising on Baby Einstein/Disney's part. By the time the FTC was ready to rule, in December 2007, Disney was embarassed enough to have revised their marketing copy on the Baby Einstein website, and so the government dismissed the complaint. However, facing a class action lawsuit, and further bad publicity from the Campaign, in 2009 Disney announced it would refund the money of any parent in the past five years who had purchased a Baby Einstein video.
The puppets: I understand that babies are fascinated with puppets. I understand that therefore you might choose to include puppets in a video for babies. However, the Baby Einstein puppet corps are a sad introduction to the ancient art of puppetry: Their eyes are small, and too far apart. While I'll admit that Jim Henson's Muppets are far too verbal and kinetic for infants, at least the size of their eyes and the distance to the nose re-create the neotenic proportions that young minds will respond too. Secondly, although the Baby Einstein puppets feature bright colors, the synthetic material they are made from has minimal texture. A cursory examination of puppets commercially available for infants and toddlers shows a preponderance of fur. The puppets in these videos then bear little resemblance to any puppets they might encounter in real life (...except for the Baby Einstein™ puppets available for sale on the Web site!). Finally, the puppetry in the videos is terrible, although whether this is due to failure of talent on the part of the puppeteers or a failure of design is unclear (but I suspect both). Given that these are simple hand puppets, there is of course a limited range to what can be performed. But the puppets appear to lack intention of movement, character, or even a simple objective. They move towards an object, or another puppet seemingly with no volition of their own-- the flatness of the eyes makes it difficult to ascribe any motivation to the puppets.
* The music: Baby Einstein arranges Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven to be "pleasing to baby's ears," which also means "severely annoying to grown up ears." The nuance and complexity provided by orchestral or chamber recordings are replaced by spritely, tinny arrangements for studio synthesizers. There is no evidence that the Mozart Effect has any applicability to infant brain development, and even in the research that has been done, no one ever suggests that "simplifying" the music is better for babies. If you want to expose your child to classical music, why not play the real thing instead of a dumbed down version?
Julie Henry and Philip Sherwell. "Disney offers millions of parents Baby Einstein refunds." The Telegraph. October 24, 2009. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/children_shealth/6425271/Disney-offers-millions-of-parents-Baby-Einstein-video-refunds.html> (accessed March 29, 2010)
Nell Minow. "Are 'educational' baby videos a scam? Research lacking to support claims." Chicago Tribune. December 14, 2005. Reprinted at: <http://blogfromthepond.blogspot.com/2005/12/are-educational-baby-videos-scam.html> (accessed December 2, 2008)
Timothy Noah. "Baby Einstein's Quasi-Recall." Slate. October 25, 2009.<http://www.slate.com/id/2233556/> (accessed March 29, 2010)
Joel Schwartz, "Baby DVDs, videos may hinder, not help, infants' language development." University of Washington Press Release. August 7, 2007. <http://uwnews.washington.edu/ni/article.asp?articleID=35898> (accessed December 2, 2008)