Just a decade ago, a company called Baby Einstein helped launch not only a new line of educational videos and toys but a new generation of kid-centric parents who believed that so-called “enrichment activities” could put their toddlers squarely in the fast lane to success.

The Baby Einstein Company was soon joined by others that promoted educational and entertainment products and services for babies and the under-three-year-old set, including The Baby Prodigy Company (“Dedicated to helping raise smarter, happier young children”) and Brainy Baby (“Learning for a lifetime”). The U.S. isn’t alone in this trend. The UK-based TV show “Teletubbies” shared the same premise.

However, as this educational baby business grew into a $20 billion-a-year industry, some child advocacy groups warned parents to rethink the products and the messages behind the campaigns that targeted infants and toddlers. In 2006, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against The Baby Einstein Company for false and deceptive marketing. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates no television for any child under two and suggests limits for older children, quickly supported the complaint, noting that “there is no current evidence to prove these videos help infants and toddlers in an intellectual or developmental way.”

And earlier this year, a report by Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., research organization, released a report stating that most so-called educational toys for infants and toddlers are bogus. As Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst for Education Sector, noted in a report called, Million Dollar Babies: Why Infants Can’t Be Hardwired for Success, “Adults can’t make newborns smarter or more successful just by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einstein-inspired blocks.”

The latest salvo in the bringing-up-baby marketing controversy is a new book by journalist and broadcaster Susan Gregory Thomas called, Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds. In the book, Thomas documents the lack of evidence that “educational” products provide any educational benefits at all for young children. She also suggests that the products and the zero-to-three-year-old marketing campaigns could actually end up hurting babies and toddlers, who she writes, have become the “youngest consumers in American history,” prone to eventually suffer all of the “ills that rampant materialism used to visit only on adults — from anxiety to hypercompetitiveness to depression.”

“The whole baby genius zeitgeist is like a media virus that came into being in 1997,” Thomas said in a recent interview. “These ideas get introduced and fused together [and] they just seem to take off. They become unstoppable. No one ever said, ‘Do we even know how infants look at television? Do we even know what is required in terms of neurological protocol?’ It turns out that a toddler and a four-year-old are as different cognitively as different species.”

But Thomas, a mother of two, clearly understands how parents quickly latched on to the notion that even young babies could benefit from certain toys and videos. As she notes in her book: “It’s no secret that toy and media corporations manipulate the insecurities of parents to move their products.” Parents are “never more neurotic than when they have a zero to three-year-old,” she added. “You are trying to keep them alive and you are constantly in a state of panic. You are more susceptible to trying to do everything right, and your frame of mind is, ‘Am I depriving my child if I don’t get this product?'”

“Vulnerable Pockets” of Consumers

As a group, parents are definitely vulnerable to marketing strategies, says Wharton marketing professor Leonard M. Lodish. “They are one of the vulnerable pockets” of consumers, the same way “people are vulnerable when someone dies” and they are preyed upon by the funeral industry, or when “someone gets married: Look at weddings — the cost and excess. Parents are vulnerable because they have always wanted the best for their kids.” (In the interest of full disclosure, Lodish notes that he is a director of a company that sells diapers and other baby supplies on the Internet.)

When it comes to marketing products touted as “educational,” however, the company pitching to babies and toddlers has a distinct advantage. “From a marketing perspective, it’s relatively easy to lay out the claims,” says Wharton marketing professor Deborah Small, “because there is … a big delay between using these products and getting any feedback. Products (for babies and toddlers) are marketed for outcomes that are far in the future” — such as increased intelligence and improved socialization, which some see as helping to get into better colleges and land more prestigious jobs. 

“If you are a parent in a cushy suburb,” says Small, “and you have all the best opportunities growing up and you use these tools, these programs, these videos and so forth, and down the line your kid gets into Harvard — what do you attribute that to? There are so many different things in the equation.” Conversely, Small notes that if you take advantage of every possible advancement product and “your kid doesn’t achieve all that you expect, what do you attribute that to? That the Einstein program didn’t work? As a product, it provides very weak, ambiguous feedback.”

Granted, the Baby Einstein Company, founded by Julie Aigner-Clark in 1997 and sold to The Walt Disney Company in 2001, never claimed that its products would help get babies into college. According to the company’s current website, “There’s a big fun-filled world out there for babies to discover. Baby Einstein helps by using music, language, nature and art in playful ways to entertain and engage little ones from birth and up. Explore our entire line of playful and interactive DVDs, videos, books, music CDs and toys today. You’ll see how Baby Einstein can help you and your little one discover the world together.”

As Thomas writes, “There is little reason to question the claims by makers of baby toys and equipment that their products ‘stimulate’ babies’ cognitive abilities with blinking lights or classical music. The packaging explains why such features are educational, and parents are sure that they read or saw something that an expert said about them. In any case, most people buy these products because that’s what is on the market.”

She suggests that there was never any real evidence to prove that these “educational” toys, shows and products provide any educational benefit at all for young children. Yet “what might be called the baby genius phenomenon — the widely-held notion that infants and toddlers can be made smarter via exposure to the right products and programs — has spread throughout the toy industry. Today, to be competitive in the baby and toddler business, a toy maker’s products must encourage ‘learning’ or at least claim that they do.”

This new “zero-to-three market has become the first segment in cradle-to-grave marketing,” Thomas states in her book. “The world of infants and toddlers did not look like this even 15 years ago.”

The “Brain Conference”

So what happened? In Buy, Buy Baby, Thomas traces the answer back to 1994, when a well-intentioned report by the Carnegie Corporation, called “Starting Points,” made the case for more federal funds for services to infants and children. By claiming that brain development in the womb and during the first year of life was “more rapid and extensive than we previously realized,” the report helped focus attention on a child’s early years. Before long, well-known actor-director Rob Reiner had launched a campaign to nurture development in babies and toddlers. And by 1997, Reiner’s efforts were supported by none other than Hillary Clinton, who hosted the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning.

According to Thomas, the conference played a major role in advancing the notion that critical thinking and learning is developed in children by the age of three, an idea that was originally intended to get more state and federal governments to support day care programs for babies and toddlers. But when baby marketing experts got hold of the message, there was no turning back. Writes Thomas: “If any one event triggered this neurosis, it was the 1997 White House Conference,” later famously referred to as the “brain conference.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the issue as well, stating that “research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills. These infant videos are marketed under the guise of being educational. The company names alone — Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein — are proof of the marketing strategy. There is no current evidence to prove that these videos help infants and toddlers in an intellectual or developmental way. Parents should know that their babies will develop just fine without watching these videos.”

Education Sector’s Mead agrees. “Hype about the importance of the first three years often extends far beyond what existing scientific knowledge about the brain actually justifies,” she says. “Neural connections in babies’ brains grow rapidly in the early years, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to show that children and animals deprived of stimulation early in life suffer lasting intellectual and emotional damage. But there’s no evidence to support the converse notion — that extra stimulation, above and beyond what nurturing parents naturally provide by talking to, cuddling and playing with their infants, will have any added benefit or raise children’s intelligence.”

Parents, she adds, “are naturally anxious about their children’s welfare and futures, but now there’s a new threat hanging over their heads: Pick the wrong daycare or pass on the latest Baby Einstein DVD, and you can kiss university goodbye. No wonder so-called ‘educational’ toys for infants and toddlers — a market that barely existed a generation ago — are now a multi-billion dollar industry.”

After a complaint was filed against Baby Einstein (the complaint is still pending), the company contacted Deborah Linebarger, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication who specializes in children and media. She turned down the company’s request that she testify on its behalf at FTC hearings. “I told them ‘no,'” says Linebarger, explaining that she questioned not only the way the products are marketed but the very claims that they are educational. “I do think that Baby Einstein has exploited the market. I just think that when you use words like ‘Einstein’ or ‘genius,’ that implies the product is academically important. I think it is a problem.”

Linebarger, a mother of three, notes that when you “go into these baby stores, everything is ‘baby genius, baby smart.’ They make you feel bad if you don’t buy these things for your kids. It’s exploitative. And in terms of whether or not these products are educational, there is very little research on media products for kids two and under, and I’m talking specifically about television. There are six to 10 studies on kids under two, and the results are mixed. What it seems to boil down to is, what does the content look like? Is it very simple? Does it have a narrative structure? Do they have a lot of editing techniques like dissolves or fast-changing screens? The more they have, the more complicated or difficult it is for a child to understand.”

According to Linebarger, a recent study did debunk an earlier theory that too much television can cause attention deficit problems. And she hopes to learn more this fall when she begins a long-term study to look at the effects of all media use on children, beginning at birth. “It always surprises me when I hear people who are not in the industry say things like, ‘Recent brain research says blah, blah, blah.’ That’s a naive view. They over-interpret what those findings can really tell you.”

Keeping Up with the Jones’s Kids

Thomas acknowledges that her book is not the first to bring this baby marketing controversy to the forefront, but she does think that it “is the first to bring it all together and encapsulate the zeitgeist. And I think the timing is right for people to begin to think about their choices, not necessarily that we will turn off all television but that we will think about our participation in this consumer economy and the consequences.”

Which could prove easier said than done. Wharton’s Small suggests that unless there is some “huge cultural shift,” the competitiveness that exists in society at large will continue to fuel parents’ desire to “keep their kids up with the Jones’s. These marketing efforts to tap into educational goals are (driven) from those needs….It’s like the competitive need to look younger, thinner — particularly for women. It drives plastic surgery. The obvious solution is just telling parents to relax — but that’s easier said than done.”

Wharton marketing professor Lisa E. Bolton explains why. “It’s unreasonable to expect consumers to evaluate all the evidence” when it comes to educational claims and products, she says. “They are left with the idea that there is something behind it — and who wouldn’t want the best for their baby? It makes intuitive sense. Here’s a product that’s an advantage for babies, it helps make improvements — people can resonate with that. And it plays into people who may be risk averse, [who think] ‘It can’t hurt.’ It creates a susceptibility to accepting these products because you look for ways to help your child do better even if you’re not sure it will work.”

Bolton, like others, points out that the branding and marketing of these educational toys take advantage of both parental egos and anxieties with such brand names as “Baby Einstein, Learning Curve, Leap Frog, Getting Ahead, Discovery, Baby Prodigy, Brainy Baby… . It cues anxiety and guilt if you don’t get [these products]. Every parent probably wonders at some time if they do the right thing. Many end up by saying, ‘At least I bought my kid the best. At least I’ve been trying.'”

Bolton suggests that the audience of Generation X parents (typically defined as those born between 1965 and 1980) is especially fertile ground for these marketing initiatives. “It’s kind of seductive. I think many families, with both parents working, have limited time with their children and they want it to be high quality time.”

She recently looked up “developmental toys” on a particular website and pulled up 12 pages of items. The first item was a soft, padded, multicolored “clutch cube,” described as helping parents teach their child “cause and effect.” Bolton, the mother of two, suggests that “cause and effect” is also learned when a child drops a spoon to the floor from a high chair, or puts a finger up against a green pea and smashes it. But because a product exists that promises to help children grasp this concept, people are left wondering: “Is this something my child could benefit from?”

In Buy, Buy Baby, Thomas calls on government and health care professionals to consider the effects of television and videos on very young children as an important health issue. She also says that “given the widespread and extraordinarily powerful influence of professionally produced programs for babies and toddlers, it is imperative that more federally funded studies explore their impact.”

Lodish had another suggestion. “The best toy for our children? The best toy on the shelf? Read to them. That’s what you do. Read to them every night.”