No Nobel for Baby? Who’s To Blame & What Can You Do?

By Christopher Byrne

Earlier this week, a major piece in the New York Times announced refund to parents who had purchased its Baby Einstein videos because they aren’t “educational.”

The refund program was initially announced in September, but due to an aggressive publicity effort by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood the program has gotten heavy play.

However, in a cogent and strongly worded statement on its site Baby Einstein says that the refund program has spun “a simple customer satisfaction action into a false admission of guilt.” The reality appears to be that Disney instituted this program both out of concern for its customers and to avoid a threatened class action lawsuit. It’s laudable on the former concern and practical on the latter.

For anyone who values the free market, it’s hard not to feel for Disney. They maintain that they have never promoted videos and other products as “educational.” Their emphasis has always been on parent-child interaction, they say. The videos are well-done and benign, but to be honest, a child who simply watches them without the context of a parent is going to be far more entertained than anything else. The speed of the programming, the simplicity of the images and the pleasing music essentially turn the TV into a video music box. Kids aren’t going to be suddenly brilliant after an hour of puppets and Mozart, and I firmly believe that any parent who truly thinks about it knows this. Anyone who thinks that a video is going to supply the place of true teaching (which happens most effectively person-to-person, not in any electronic from) is not thinking this through.

Consumers project their own hopes onto marketing, all too willing to believe that some product is a “magic bullet” that will achieve a difficult end (education, weight loss, hot, sculpted abs) without the requisite effort.

Hello! That’s how advertising works. And why so many people are disappointed when the image they created in their minds doesn’t work. Now, it’s not that advertisers are necessarily making false claims but that consumers don’t use products as directed. You can buy the Ab Blaster, but if you don’t use it and don’t follow the diet plan, the spare tire isn’t going away. Who is really at fault when that happens? Sadly, in our culture right now, the proclivity is not to take responsibility for our own actions, or lack thereof, but to blame the manufacturers for making false promises—even when they didn’t make those promises.

That said, it’s one can’t help but support the fundamental mission of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. They have correctly identified the pervasive nature of advertising in everything from TV to web sites to school buses. When one probes the nearly overwhelming number of advertising messages that are directed to kids, it can be mind-boggling. There is virtually no place a child can turn where he or she is not bombarded with an advertising message of some sort.

Particularly for school age to high school young people who are trying to forge identities for themselves, advertising can be pernicious. They are more likely to believe that owning a specific product will make them cool. Marketers know this, and they exploit this, often pushing the limits of what is acceptable to broadcasters. This is not what Baby Einstein did.

If there good out of this situation, it is the reminder to parents and caregivers to be connected to their kids and be aware of the media they are consuming. Turning off the TV isn’t a solution; it’s an inescapable part of our culture. Limiting screen time, however, is a good idea. Get the TVs and computers out of the bedrooms, and most importantly teach your kids how advertising works. Watch the commercials for the toys your kids are putting on their wish lists, and if it doesn’t seem right to you, don’t be afraid to ask them what they like about it. Marketing is unavoidable. You need to be a savvy consumer of it—and teach your kids to be.

And you have to stand up for your values. There is no reason to bring something into your home that you don’t want or don’t support. What marketers say is beyond your control. How you interpret marketing and the actions you take are. When you take responsibility for parsing advertising claims, consumption becomes a conscious act, not an emotional reaction.

As for dealing with kids who feel their “lives are ruined” by not having a certain advertised product? Try humor. My mother’s constant response to my brothers’ and my accusations of how terrible she was by not giving us something was a mordant, “It must be terrible having a monster for a mother.”

The thing is, I can’t remember a single thing I “couldn’t live without.” I do remember being taught to be a careful consumer.

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