Chattermailbox: Baby Einstein replies.

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Jan. 31 2007 8:23 PM

Baby Einstein Replies

An e-mail from Julia Aigner-Clark, and a reply.

Dear Timothy,



To be fair, you neglected to mention [in "Bush's Baby Einstein Gaffe," Jan. 24] the $200,000 that I've donated to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children  (every penny of profit made by The Safe Side), the donation of a child safety program to every school district in the state of Texas, and the nearly $2 million dollars I've personally invested in educating kids on how to stay safe. Apparently, the $5,000 that my husband donated to a Republican Senator  (not Bush) takes precedence.



But I'm sure you consider yourself fair and balanced? Oh--and you might fact-check to determine which videos were produced by me prior to the sale of Baby Einstein to Disney. I didn't make Baby DaVinci, nor did I make any of the claims that you referenced in your article.

And I was raised a Democrat! Imagine that.

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Have a great day.



Julie Aigner-Clark

Ms. Aigner-Clark is the founder of Baby Einstein, which she sold to the Walt Disney Co. in 2001. President Bush touted her accomplishments during the "heroes" portion of his 2007 State of the Union address (click here for the video).



Dear Julie,

1.) I never said your husband donated $5,000 to Bush in 2004. I said he donated $5,150 to Bush and the Republican National Committee. That is a matter of public record.

2.) I applaud your charitable contributions. I don't rate them up there with leaping in front of a subway train to rescue a stranger, or repelling an enemy attack with two legs full of shrapnel, which is what two of the other honored "heroes" (seated with you beside the first lady in the House visitor's gallery) did. But they're generous contributions. You can afford them.

3.) I'm glad to learn that you no longer owned Baby Einstein when the video Baby DaVinci was marketed with the outrageous claim, "[Y]our child will learn to identify her different body parts, and also discover her five senses … in Spanish, English, and French!" That claim is one basis for a consumer complaint filed against Baby Einstein with the Federal Trade Commission last spring—a complaint that includes letters of support from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

But another basis for the complaint (see p. 7) is the name of the company itself, which was bestowed on your watch:

The brand name "Baby Einstein" sends an initial message to consumers that the videos are educational and beneficial. Even Baby Einstein founder Julie Clark has admitted that the name "Einstein has become a generic term for a smart person."

A footnote cites a 1946 decision, Jacob Seigel Co. v. F.T.C., which "held that a product's name can play a role in implying a claim."

There is no evidence that parking a child under the age of two in front of a video—any video—will make him smarter, and there's some evidence that it may do him harm, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against it. By all accounts, what Baby Einstein videos are really good for is distracting the baby while Mom or Dad sneaks off to take a shower. I'm a parent myself, and I well remember those moments when a baby could feel like the commandant of a particularly inhumane prisoner-of-war camp. (No, you may not go to the toilet! I don't care how long you've been waiting!) But you didn't market these videos under the brand name Baby Hypnotize or Baby Chloroform. You marketed them under the name Baby Einstein. That's deceptive.

What's more, your disassociation from marketing practices undertaken by Walt Disney Co. after you sold Baby Einstein strikes me as disingenuous. You may no longer own the company, but President Bush said in his speech that "with [your] help Baby Einstein has grown into a $200 million business." That suggests that you maintained a role in the company after you sold it. Your picture appears beside the words, "Our Founder," on a Baby Einstein Web page. And that's you in a QuickTime video on that same Web page touting the videos. "We use art to teach color to children in really fun, silly ways," you say. Not "We used to teach color in really fun, silly ways, before those unscrupulous hacks at Disney took over." And in what sense can a video really "teach" an infant anything? What evidence do you have that anything is being learned, other than an early attachment to the TV screen?

4.) You may have been raised a Democrat, but you are now being used by Republicans. Don't mistake the president's mentioning you in his speech as anything other than condescension—a condescension of which Democrats are equally capable. If President Bush cared at all about the issue of child development, then someone on his staff would have taken the five minutes necessary to discover that prominent medical professionals consider the business you founded to be a scam. (For that matter, if President Bush cared at all about the issue of early child development, then he wouldn't have let Head Start funding lie flat during the past five years. But that's another story.) The White House's choosing to spotlight your accomplishment was surely meant to demonstrate its commitment to children, to families, and to all those other womanly good feelings it fears that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif., taps  into with female voters. But in failing to perform even rudimentary research on what it is Baby Einstein actually does, the White House ended up demonstrating the precise opposite. The fact that this screw-up attracted less attention in the press than the president's absent-mindedly referring to the "Democrat" rather than the "Democratic" party further shows that President Bush's indifference to these "women's" issues is widely shared in newsrooms.

Cheers,

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.