It's fitting that Julie Aigner-Clark was singled out by President Bush in his State of the Union Address as a stellar example of
entrepreneurship. The Baby Einstein Company, which she sold to Disney for more than $20 million in 2001, has a lot in common with
his administration. Both specialize in brilliantly crafted, hugely successful, false and deceptive marketing to promote their
brands. Both exploit fear as a tool for marketing. Both rely on building a passive and accepting media audience.
Preying on parental concerns about children's development, Baby Einstein brought in over $200 million to Disney in 2005 through unsubstantiated claims that its videos were educational for babies and by hyping a link that doesn't exist between its brand and
learning (In 2006, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Baby Einstein
for false and deceptive marketing; that complaint is pending) . The most horrifying example of the Bush administration's
deceptive marketing and manipulation of fear is the war in Iraq--sold to us through unsubstantiated claims of weapons of mass
destruction and by hyping a link that didn't exist between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.
In making this comparison, I do not mean to trivialize the damage done by this administration or the ongoing tragedy of the carnage in Iraq. Certainly no infant has died watching Baby Einstein. At best baby videos look like fun, and they appear at worst to be
merely inane. But the fact is that media companies like Disney, which deceptively market screen time as beneficial to babies, are
doing actual harm.
By targeting babies, companies are marketing not just products but lifelong habits, values and behaviors, hardwiring dependence on media before babies even have a chance to grow and develop and removing them further and further from the very experiences that are
essential for healthy development-and for democracy.
Research suggests that -- for babies -- TV viewing interferes with cognitive development, language development and regular sleep patterns. It can also be habituating. For older children, hours of television watched are linked to bullying, poor school performance and childhood obesity.
Particularly relevant to the future state of our democratic union is research showing that the more time babies spend in front of
TV, the less time they spend in one activity which we know is educational--creative play. Losing, or never acquiring, the ability
to play may not sound like much until you realize that play is essential not just to learning, but to democracy. It's through playing that children learn skills essential to thriving in, and protecting, a democratic society. Critical thinking,-initiative, curiosity, problem solving and creativity are capacities that develop through play, as are the more ephemeral qualities of self-reflection, empathy, and the ability to find meaning in life.
And what do children learn from the more than forty hours a week they spend with a commercially dominated media? They are being taught the corporate values embraced and promulgated by the Bush administration--unthinking brand loyalty, impulse buying, and a belief that consumption is the solution to all ills. Remember, this is the administration that told us to go shopping after the World Trade Center was attacked.
Meanwhile, the baby-media industry is booming. In the U.S., according to reports from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 68 per cent of
children two and under engage with screen media for an average of two hours daily. About 19% of babies under the age of one have a
television in their bedroom. Despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two, about half of U.S. parents harbor the erroneous belief that videos like the Baby Einstein series are very important to a young child's education.
One potential consequence of the baby-media industry's success in scamming American parents is that screen-saturated, play-deprived, babies will grow into screen-dependent adults, without the will or capacity to question what they're being sold. And that's exactly where this Administration wants them. During the build-up to the Iraq war, Andrew Card, the President's chief of staff, was asked why the administration waited until September to promote the invasion. He replied, "From a marketing point of view you don't introduce new products in August."
Do we want to raise a generation of die-hard consumers trained from birth to buy into war as just another product, or do we want to
raise democratic citizens? We know which the Bush Administration-and Disney-prefer.
Susan Linn, Ed.D. is co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of Consuming Kids.