The Walt Disney Company began offering refunds for its “Baby Einstein” DVDs, videos and similar products more than two years after UW researchers showed that the DVDs marketed as boosting infants’ language learning were actually detrimental.
Last Saturday the New York Times and other news outlets reported that Disney will refund $15.99 for up to four of the “Baby Einstein” DVDs per household purchased between June 5, 2004 and Sept. 5, 2009. The Times’ story apparently was triggered by a press release from the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, an organization that has been lobbying against the videos for years and has threatened a class-action lawsuit against Disney for unfair and deceptive practices. The organization has claimed that the “Baby Einstein” videos and similar products are not educational or beneficial for early childhood development.
But wait, there’s more: On Monday Disney called the press release a publicity stunt and said the money-back offer was its standard policy.
The UW became involved in the controversy in August, 2007, when researchers Frederick Zimmerman (no longer at the UW), Dimitri Christakis and Andrew Meltzoff published a paper in the Journal of Pediatrics challenging the marketing claims that the DVDs were educational.
The peer-reviewed paper showed that rather than helping babies, the over-use of such products actually may slow down infants eight to 16 months of age when it comes to acquiring vocabulary.
The researchers found that for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them. The DVDS and videos had no positive or negative effect on the vocabularies of toddlers 17 to 24 months of age.
The UW’s Office of News and Information issued a press release when the paper was published and the research received widespread national and international coverage. That prompted Robert Iger, Disney president and chief executive officer, to complain about both the paper and the news release, asking for the latter to be retracted.
President Mark Emmert reviewed the matter and stood by the paper and the news release.