Baby Einstein's Quasi-Recall
Maybe Julie Aigner-Clark isn't an American hero after all.
In a January 2007 column ("Bush's Baby Einstein Gaffe") I argued that the Bush White House blundered badly when it singled out Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of the Baby Einstein Co., to sit by First Lady Laura Bush as President George W. Bush rhapsodized, in his State of the Union address, "Julie represents the great enterprising spirit of America." A tradition dating to the Reagan administration required the president to recognize a few American heroes during his annual speech to Congress. Seated alongside Aigner-Clark in the House visitor's gallery were Wesley Autrey, who had leapt in front of a New York City subway train to rescue a complete stranger, and Army Sgt. Tommy Reiman, who had repelled an enemy attack in Iraq with two legs full of shrapnel and bullet wounds in his arms and chest.
Aigner-Clarke's act of heroism had been to get rich marketing "educational" DVDs for an age group (zero to 2) that, pediatricians agreed, shouldn't be watching TV at all. Baby Einstein videos were at best devoid of their promised education benefits ("your child will learn to identify her different body parts, and also discover her five senses … in Spanish, English, and French!") and at worst actively harmful to brain development. Bush's own Federal Trade Commission was at that very moment weighing a complaint against Baby Einstein for making false and deceptive claims.
Aigner-Clark had sold Baby Einstein to Disney in 2001, she said in an e-mail after my column appeared, and therefore bore no current resonsibility for the company's product pitch. I answered that she maintained (and still maintains) a presence on Baby Einstein's Web site and that at least one basis for the FTC complaint—the company's name—was clearly Aigner-Clark's own doing.
The FTC dismissed the complaint late in 2007, largely because publicity generated by it had embarrassed Disney into abandoning its gaudiest educational claims. But escalating bad publicity and the threat of further legal action last month persuaded the company to offer a refund to anyone who purchased a Baby Einstein DVD between June 5, 2004, and Sept. 4, 2009, (which covers President Bush's January 2007 pitch). The company already offered a 60-day money-back guarantee for its videos, but the new refund offer gives consumers until March 2010 to return videos purchased during the designated time period and requires no receipt. That gives the transaction some flavor of a product recall. Sadly, no refund will be made available for the eight-year Bush presidency itself.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.