Correction to This Article
A headline on a May 2 Business article incorrectly indicated that a group sued two video firms over the promotion of their products as educational and developmental. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, not a lawsuit.

Group Sues Video Firms On Tot-Learning Claims

Baby Einstein video products are marketed to parents of young children.
Baby Einstein video products are marketed to parents of young children. (By Nate Parsons -- The Washington Post)
By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

A child-advocacy group whose mission is to limit marketing aimed at children yesterday asked the federal government to bar two major baby-video companies from promoting their products as educational and beneficial to child development.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying Baby Einstein Co. and Brainy Baby Co. should not be able to say their products inspire "logical thinking," foster "the development of your toddler's speech and language skills," or give "your child a jumpstart on learning."

The group said the claims are deceptive, since there is no proof that these increasingly popular videos are beneficial and educational. In fact, it said, "research shows that television viewing is potentially harmful for infants and toddlers," because it could adversely affect cognitive development if it replaces creative play and interaction with a child's parents and surroundings.

Dennis Fedoruk, the founder and president of Brainy Baby, said the company does not make any educational claims and "does not promise parents their children will be Harvard graduates." He said, "There is enough research to show that early education is valid and does work. We're simply providing another tool in the early-educational library," along with books and toys.

Baby Einstein had no comment.

The CCFC's complaint comes at a time when the baby-video market is booming, with more than $1 billion in sales so far in videos aimed at children 2 and younger. Baby Einstein, owned by Walt Disney Co., has the largest share of the market, and sales last year reached $200 million.

The growth of this relatively new business -- Brainy Baby was started in 1995, Baby Einstein in 1997 -- comes despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children younger than 2 be discouraged from watching television. The academy, in a policy statement issued in 1999, said: "Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers . . . for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills."

The academy has been sharply criticized for that recommendation. Baby Einstein, for example, said the academy failed to differentiate between traditional broadcast television and videos, which can be more carefully selected by parents.

But the academy's chair of the communications committee, which deals with the impact of media on children's health, said yesterday that the group stands by its recommendation. Video for infants and toddlers "is a great uncontrolled experiment on the nation's under-2-year-old set," said Donald Shifrin, a Seattle pediatrician, in a telephone interview. "It is based on marketing, not research. . . . The Academy would like to reassure parents that children have been doing fine for thousands of years" without baby videos.

The CCFC has asked the FTC to make the video companies clearly and conspicuously disclose the academy's recommendations on their advertising and packaging. The FTC had no comment on the complaint.

Although there are several other companies that produce videos for young children, the CCFC is seeking action against only two firms because they are the largest and most popular. "We hope that this will set a precedent" and apply to all baby-video companies, said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and one of CCFC's founders.

The complaint said the companies' very names suggest their products are educational and beneficial. So do their slogans, according to the complaint -- "Great minds start little" for Baby Einstein and "A little genius in the Making" for Brainy Baby. Fedoruk said Brainy Baby was in the process of changing the motto to "learning for a lifetime."

"These companies are exploiting parents' natural tendency to want what's best for their children, and their deceptive marketing may be putting babies at risk," said Alvin F. Poussaint, head of the Boston-based Judge Baker Children's Center, which serves as the headquarters for CCFC.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company