Walt Disney Demands Retraction From University of Washington Over Baby Einstein Video Press Release

The Walt Disney Company has issued a press release demanding a retraction from the University of Washington over their “misleading” press release that prompted several news articles about Disney’s Baby Einstein videos. Attached to the press release was the following letter to Mark A. Emmert, the president of the University of Washington from Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney. Let’s watch!

Disney writes:

August 13, 2007

Mark A. Emmert, Ph.D.
President
University of Washington
301 Gerberding Hall
Box 351230
Seattle, Washington 98195

Re: University of Washington Press Release Concerning Study on Children’s Language Development and Media Viewing

Dear Dr. Emmert:

On behalf of The Walt Disney Company, and our subsidiary The Baby Einstein Company LLC, I write to demand the immediate retraction and clarification of a misleading, irresponsible and derogatory press statement issued by the University of Washington on Monday, August 6, and thereafter posted on the University’s website, regarding the publication of a study by three University researchers entitled “Associations Between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years.”

At the outset, let me make clear that we have no quarrel with the notion of conducting research into how infants respond to media products in general or “Baby Einstein” videos in particular. We welcome well conceived and well executed research of all kinds, particularly involving media products and children. We are always seeking to improve our products as we continue The Walt Disney Company’s proud tradition of providing wholesome and enriching experiences to children and families.

Nevertheless, one may well question whether the study by Professor Zimmerman, Dr. Christakis, and Professor Meltzoff was indeed well conceived and well executed. Our assessment, based on what we have been able to learn thus far, is that its methodology is doubtful, its data seem anomalous and the inferences it posits unreliable. To state just a few points:

The study combines very different content into a single category of “Baby Video”, even though the types of videos lumped into this category vary widely. In effect, the study assumes that neither the specific content nor the manner in which it is consumed can influence the nature of the experience. The study does nothing to prove this proposition which is contradicted by other published studies of infant viewing (not even mentioned in the report) which find that the specific nature of content and the way it is consumed are vitally important.

Applying the same misleading standards that the press release used, the study could be said to advise parents to be sure that infants watch television — for the study finds that not watching television is associated with reduced vocabulary[1] — but to avoid having infants watch baby videos. That is to say, watching American Idol is better for infants than no television at all. Of course, such advice is absurd.

The study fails to account for, let alone assess, the interactive nature of products such as Baby Einstein, seemingly dismisses the importance of interactivity as a factor by assuming without proof that interaction is equally important regardless of content design, and then undermines even that unproven assumption by conceding that the study “cannot capture the quality of [parent-child] interactions, which surely vary.”

While it is indisputable that children develop at different rates and differ in their innate abilities, there is no attempt to control for these differences which are particularly important in the sample of younger babies.

While the press release highlights that the study is based on a survey of 1008 parents of children aged 2 to 24 months, a closer examination shows that the study based its critical conclusions about the impact of baby videos on infants 8 to 16 months on a disturbingly smaller sample of just 384 children. Of this group, 44% watched no television of any kind, leaving a total of 215 infants with some television viewing — and with no indication whatsoever as to how many of this smaller number watch any baby videos at all.

Whether your University is comfortable associating its name with analysis of this quality is, of course, your decision. And I would not be reaching out to you if all that was at stake was a poorly done academic study. But the actions of the University have caused much more to be at stake. Wholly apart from the merits of the study, the press release issued by your University blatantly misrepresented what the study was about, distorted the actual findings and conclusions that the study purported to make, and ignored the study’s own explicit acknowledgment of its limitations and shortcomings. And even worse, the University issued the release and triggered the fully foreseeable press cycle before the study itself could be analyzed. In short, the University’s press release was grossly unfair, extremely damaging, and, to be blunt, just plain wrong in every conceivable sense.

The press release begins as follows:

“Despite marketing claims, parents who want to give their infants a boost in learning language probably should limit the amount of time they expose their children to DVD’s and videos such as ‘Baby Einstein’ and ‘Brainy Baby’. Rather than helping babies, the over-use of such productions actually may slow down infants eight to 16 months of age when it comes to acquiring vocabulary, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute.”

There are at least three fundamental problems with these statements.

1. Contrary to the clear and deliberate impression created by the press release, the researchers did not attempt or purport to study the effect of watching “Baby Einstein” videos. So far as we can tell from the published study itself, the researchers asked parents in telephone interviews only to identify their children’s television viewing in broad categories — one of which was “Baby DVD’s/videos” — without specifically identifying the particular videos or video brands they had viewed. Thus, there is no way to know how much — if any — of the viewing reported in this general category was in fact of “Baby Einstein” videos. The study made no pretense of studying the particular impact of “Baby Einstein” video watching, the unique attributes of “Baby Einstein” videos, or the ways in which children and parents use and interact with “Baby Einstein” videos. By lumping “Baby Einstein” videos with all other “Baby DVD’s/videos” — including many, such as “Teletubbies,” which offer a vastly different viewing experience — the study provides absolutely no basis for making any findings or conclusions about the particular impact that viewing “Baby Einstein” videos may have on children.[2] Yet, in the very first sentence of the release, “Baby Einstein” videos are called out by name.

2. Contrary to the clear implication in the first sentence of the press release, the study did not evaluate the truthfulness or, indeed, address at all any “marketing claims” made by or on behalf of “Baby Einstein” videos. The study does not even seek to identify such “claims” or to consider at all whether such unidentified “claims” might conflict with the study’s findings in any fashion. There simply is no basis in the study for the press release’s gratuitous slap at Baby Einstein’s “marketing claims.”

3. The press release bluntly states that “parents who want to give their infants a boost in learning language probably should limit the amount of time they expose their children to DVD’s and videos such as “Baby Einstein.” This is a very serious statement, one which has now been widely picked up in the press. It is also a statement that grossly misstates the study’s extremely limited findings and conclusions. While the study hypothesizes that “it is possible that heavy viewing of baby DVDs/videos has a deleterious effect on early language development,” the authors present this as only one of several possible alternative ways of evaluating the results; other alternatives do not involve this causal relationship. The authors go on to acknowledge, forthrightly, that “our study has several major limitations.” These include, in the authors’ own words:

“the study’s co relational nature precludes drawing causal inferences.”

“we used only 1 developmental measure — language development, as defined by vocabulary.”

“the sample is not representative of the general population.”

Indeed, in conclusion, the authors further acknowledge that,

“The analysis presented here is not a direct test of the developmental impact of viewing baby DVDs/videos. We did not test through experimental manipulation whether viewing baby DVDs/videos has a positive or negative impact on vocabulary acquisition.”

For the University to issue a press release making reckless charges warning parents to avoid using Baby Einstein products, and post them on its website, in the face of these clear and explicit disclaimers is totally irresponsible.

There is no question that the press release is having a broad and entirely foreseeable impact. Assuming that a press release from a well respected University would fairly reflect the substance and conclusions of the underlying study, media outlets are widely citing the study as demonstrating that use of “Baby Einstein” videos harms infants. This disparaging assessment — directly provoked by your University’s press release — is not supported by any credible study of which we are aware, let alone the flawed study on which the release was purportedly based.

The cloud cast by the University’s actions is truly regrettable. We strongly believe that our “Baby Einstein” videos provide a positive experience for children and families, one which encourages parent-child interaction and provides children with enriching and stimulating images and sounds drawn from real life. Millions of parents who have shared and enjoyed “Baby Einstein” videos with their children agree.

The press release unfairly disparaged that product by grossly misrepresenting the focus and extremely limited findings and conclusions of the study your University has issued in its name and endorsed. I hope you agree that as a respected academic institution you cannot allow that situation to continue. We therefore demand that the University immediately issue a retraction of the press release, and delete the release from its website, while emphasizing at least the following points, all of which are clear from the study itself:

1. The study collected no specific data concerning — and conducted no specific evaluation of — the viewing of “Baby Einstein” videos or their specific impact on children, and therefore no valid conclusions can be drawn from the study about the impact of the “Baby Einstein” videos on language acquisition or any other developmental measure;

2. The very limited nature of the study precluded the drawing of any causal inferences.

We further ask that the retraction and clarification be disseminated as widely as the original press release.

I look forward to discussing this matter further with you on our scheduled call.

Sincerely,

Robert A. Iger

We dug up the study if you’d like to read it (PDF). The official conclusion of the study is as follows:

Parents should be urged to make educated choices about their children’s media exposure. Parental hopes for the educational potential of television can be supported by encouraging those parents who are already allowing screen time to watch with their children.

Right authors, wrong study. The new one is in the August 2007 Journal of Pediatrics. (Subscription)

For what it’s worth: American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children under 24 months.

Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years (PDF) [University Of Washington]

PREVIOUSLY: “Baby Einstein” Videos Probably Don’t Work, Might Even Hurt

Comments

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  1. hubris says:

    Much as I dislike the heavy-handedness of Disney, I agree with them on this one. The University was clearly trying to cause a sensation by calling names, when the study didn’t do anything of the sort. People need to realize that just because something’s a “scientific study” doesn’t mean it’s immediately gospel. Hell, eggs have been routinely lauded and condemned on a crazy roller coaster of hypotheses. Grain of salt, people.


    I can’t believe I read that whole thing.

  2. ColdNorth says:

    Oh oh… now they’ve done it. If there is one legal department in all the world you never want to get bearing down upon you, it is Disney.

    From what I’ve heard, you just don’t mess with the Mouse.

    This should get very entertaining.

  3. gafpromise says:

    Kudos to Disney on this one. Very often researchers and/or the media fall into the trap of taking a study and making broad generalizations and conclusions as a result of the findings of the study. The rage for sound bytes tends to detract from a thoughtful analysis of the study in question. Many studies quoted in the media suffer from these same sorts of flaws and should be taken with a grain of salt, but most of them aren’t challenged in this way.

  4. LowerHouseMember says:

    Response from University of Washington –

    Dear Robert A. Iger:

    tl;dr

    Sincerely,

    Mark A. Emmert, Ph.D.

  5. dualityshift says:

    Remember Disney’s Legal Department motto: “Don’t fuck with the mouse.”

    This study could have mirrored Disney’s own, and if the results aren’t in favour of Disney, they attack.

    Remember, this is the same company that stole all your childhood stories and is trying to make sure no one else can use them. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Lion King, Little Mermaid, etc.)

  6. WNW says:

    I though U-dubb’s press release was a bit dramatic/flashy when I first saw it. As much as I hate Disney I buy what they are saying here.

  7. beyond says:

    The letter tells me one thing: Disney’s Baby Einstein is garbage, and they know it. If Disney had any real data backing up their claims they would have issued a public release instead of quietly trying to cover up real research for their own gain.

    I hope UofW uses this letter in their business ethics class!

  8. Three Word Chant says:

    Very much agreed..a press release does not a scientific study make. Disney was right on – the University is just hijacking the name to cause a sensation, and Disney has every right to be upset.

  9. dotorg greg says:

    wow, that is awesome. If I have a gripe with Baby Einstein, it’s that they can claim “interactive parental involvement” all they want, when they know full well that parents will plop their kid down in front of the screen alone.

    But this is a great, fact-driven refutation of a really obviously loaded press release about a rather tentative study. Well-played, Mouseketeers.

  10. Falconfire says:

    @beyond: um dumbass…. THIS WAS A PUBLIC RELEASE.

    What part of press release did you gloss over?

  11. morganlh85 says:

    Well that sure was hardcore.

  12. gibsonic says:

    a few observations

    – obviously Robert Iger didn’t write all that.
    – the head of Baby Einstein is a woman and that piece sounded much like the rant of a scorned woman over calling her baby ugly. She just got Iger to rubber stamp it for her.

    – Disney does have some valid points but all in all I don’t see how they have much to stand on. They are pissed. Sales probably tanking and they want someone to pay…other than themselves and their overly-hyped crap they call Baby Einstein

    – the letter is likely so long out of legal requirement. Most heads of organizations rarely use email personally and if they are talking to another head of another organization via email I can assure you it is short and sweet b/c they don’t have time to dictate or type such a lengthy diatribe such as this.

    – i read the whole thing and at the end i had the same feeling i have when i see a spoiled baby cry when it doesn’t get its way. maybe the baby really didn’t deserve to get a new toy, but he sure is a good convincer that he should get one anyway.

  13. queen_elvis says:

    I’m not sure why you people think Disney slam-dunked this one. While UW may have overstated some stuff (which is why PR people need to be careful), Disney’s letter is full of reaching. E.g. how does Disney think a researcher can control for the natural variation in how fast different people learn? Particularly since the people in question are babies who can’t communicate that well yet? I also don’t think telling people that American Idol is better than a baby video is absurd on its face, which is what the letter-writer assumes we think. Don’t children learn spoken language by imitating it?

  14. Cowboys_fan says:

    Disney is completely right. There was no scientific research into these specific videos, yet they release it as though it has, and though not verifiable still gets picked up by sites like this one. You can’t just slander companies like that w/ no evidence to back it up. Maybe Disney should hire reputationdefender.

  15. asherchang says:

    All they did was prove that sticking a baby in front of a TV screen with no one else talking to them was harmful to their development. Nothing that we didn’t know before.

  16. Televiper says:

    @dotorg greg:

    So a company cannot make claims about their product because a segment of the population is going to ignore the manual? Should McAfee stop advertising that it’s virus scanner protects your computer if they find out the majority of their customers aren’t updating their .DAT files? Why ever would you advertise a products potential by the lowest common denominator’s ability to use it?

  17. K-Bo says:

    I can see both sides of this, Disney has an argument that the study was not done under the conditions the movies were meant to be seen (with parent interaction) on the other hand, I have watched these videos with kids I babysit for in college, and I don’t believe they are any more likely to make a kid learn when the parent is involved than any other video. The parent involvement is the key. You can point to any tv show and tell them colors or shapes. Nothing about these videos makes it work better.

  18. alhypo says:

    I think Disney’s claims about the press-release are valid: the study did not specifically focus on their product. UW should definately pull the release and issue a correction.

    But one should note Disney’s own reluctance to initiate studies of their products. I’m a statistics/probability major, but I don’t need a freaking study to tell me that Baby Einstein is potentially harmful to child development. They know what would be discovered if a well-conceived study were actually undertaken; otherwise they would be throwing money at a prominent university to fund just such a study.

  19. ninabi says:

    TV, it’s what babies crave. Better watch out, Mr. Big Britches college professor.

  20. LTS! says:

    Here we go, a chance for the commenting populace to spew off the cuff responses without knowledge of the products in question or general research standards. However, since it involves babies then the researchers must be right.

    href=”#c2117364″>beyond: “Clearly Baby Einstein videos are garbage.” Yes, clearly you don’t have a clue. Rather than form an uninformed opinion you should just be quiet. If you have something more substantial than “it’s garbage because Disney made a big deal about it” then perhaps you should share it.

    @gibsonic: It sounds like a company who does not appreciate having it’s named called out specifically in a study when there was no direct mention of the Baby Einstein videos within the study itself. The very REAL point to be made is that comparing Baby Einstein videos to the trash that is Boohbah, Teletubbies, Oobi, etc. is definitely harmful for business. I don’t expect that you’ll know what Oobi is but check it out, just once to see why THAT show is harmful to the development of language. I won’t even allow that show to be on my television for any longer than it takes for me to change the station.

    My son, has picked up on many different musical instruments within orchestras simply because he has seen Meet the Orchestra. He has seen quite a few Baby Einstein videos and while I think that many are a bit simplistic, they are certainly not the same mindless drivel that other “children’s programming” might be.

    The videos are not without merit, granted simply using them as some kind of brain-numbing agent is bad parenting, but odds are parents would rather sit them in front of crappy television before they will pony up the bucks for the actual Baby Einstein videos.

    I have no doubt that the researchers in question were going for the sensationalism to cover up just how poor their research is. You can’t make a sweeping generalization from 215 interviews, nor can you name a product in specific when that product was not tested. But you can do it if you really want some media attention!@

  21. Mom2Talavera says:

    Strong worded letter= “oh no you didn’t?!”

  22. beyond says:

    @Falconfire: No, they would have released the data of a study showing the benefit of the product instead of just flaming the university study.

    Moron :D

  23. babyeinsteinblues says:

    Iger says “The study does nothing to prove this proposition which is contradicted by other published studies of infant viewing (not even mentioned in the report) which find that the specific nature of content and the way it is consumed are vitally important.”

    There are absolutely no such studies. Producers of baby videos are always talking about age-appropriate conent, but no study has ever demonstrated that any content is appropriate or beneficial for anyone under two.

    And the idea that BE doesn’t make educational claims is laughable. It’s called Baby Einstein, after all. For more on BE’s claims, see the complaint filed to the FTC by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free CHildhood.

    [www.commercialfreechildhood.org]

  24. synergy says:

    It doesn’t sound like the study actually named Baby Einstein by name. (Sorry, I’m scanning.) Perhaps the media was the one that was blowing up the connection of Baby Einstein to the study’s conclusions.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that surely this guy didn’t write this rant. And honestly, a video is not interactive. The only way a screen is interactive is if it has a camera and someone else somewhere is also at a computer with a camera. That’s interaction. Otherwise it’s passive viewing, especially if the parent isn’t actually sitting there pointing out stuff to the infant.

  25. Televiper says:

    @beyond: They don’t need to. The point is the study is crap and has no business casting “Baby Einstein” in a negative light , let alone being published with the universities credentials attached.

  26. Televiper says:

    @synergy: A) They study names Baby Einstein as an example of a childrens DVD in it’s preamble. B) The press release specifically says that their videos are meant as a means for interacting with the child. IE Sitting with the child, pointing things out, and getting them to respond to the video’s content. C) You should READ something before you comment on it.

  27. XopherMV says:

    This is a study conducted by two PhDs and an MD. It was peer-reviewed and published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a monthly professional medical journal published by the American Medical Association. This study was vetted by the best medical minds who know this information inside and out. The University of Washington is ranked number 22 in the list of best universities in the world and would not put their name behind this study were it not true and accurate. [www.msnbc.msn.com]

    Disney’s claims are dubious, at best. The anti-intellectual attacks on the study are completely laughable. It is readily apparent that Disney and few here understand how science gathers, assembles, vets, and distributes its facts. And it is readily apparent that few here have looked at the actual study themselves or understand its implications. The way this website presented its information is completely one-sided and, ironically, on the side of the corporation going against the interest of consumers.

    It appears that most of the people supporting Disney are doing so out a knee-jerk reaction, either out of their love of the company or in support of their own actions using the television as an electronic babysitter. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no screen time for children younger than 2 years. Parents allowing their children under 2 years of age to watch television are doing so against the professional opinion of the largest medical group in the country. As such, those people are bad parents.

  28. Trai_Dep says:

    If Disney had a 2″ red label running along the bottom 1/4 of the package stating, “WARNING: sitting your child to watch our video unattended will end up making your baby STUPID,” I might think their “of course we don’t suggest you leave kids unattended” argument. They don’t. Precisely because they know that some harried parents will buy the video as a cheap babysitter.

    It’s human nature. Busy or uneducated (to these studies) will do that.

    And as the study found, parents that do that aren’t doing their kids any favors.

    So Disney’s response is pretty damn evil, or at least deceitful.

  29. erica.blog says:

    I’m picturing Goffy and Donald Duck running a science experiment on Huey, Dewey and Louie…

    Science from a corporation that specializes in entertainment vs. science from real researchers. Guess which one I choose.

  30. FunPaul says:

    I’m going to have to say that Disney’s criticism is weak if not libelous. It’s clearly meant to threaten and intimidate an academic institution that dares to question the validity of their product.
    More people should be calling shenanigans on Disney’s indirect claims that their products will make your baby smarter–can we all agree that the name Baby Einstein–Einstein to many being the paragon of intelligence–is a product to make your baby more Einstein like?
    How come Disney doesn’t face the same scrutiny that their product helps child development?
    Why is it Disney’s position that their product line, which takes a position that is against the AAoP, is the correct position which needs no support by scientific study?
    Odd, I found absolutely no claims on their web site that state that the products makes babies smart. Actually, I only found one claim that even spoke to that: “Baby Einstein products are not designed to make babies smarter.”
    If they are not designed to make babies smarter, what are they designed to do?

  31. Hollywood590 says:

    Are some of you people retarded? The problem isn’t with the study. The problem is that the Baby Einstein videos are specifically called out when they were not specifically studied. This would be like me doing a study on how good video games are, then calling 19 people who played ET on the Atari and 1 person who played Zelda. Turns out 19 of the people studied don’t like video games. Now would it be fair to put out a press release talking about how much Zelda sucks ass? Of course not. If the study was specifically about Baby Einstein I would be all for it, but as it is Disney is right.

  32. plim says:

    it’s as if disney is reading consumerist. i thought it was a well-put together letter.

    and agreed with hollywood590: disney is not criticizing commentary/feedback or even criticism of their product. they just don’t want to be lumped in with telletubbies. how the heck are you supposed to learn languages when all they say is “ooba-wooba-tinky-winky?” at least baby einstein uses not only english, but french and spanish as well.

    while the videos are a bit simplistic and sometimes hypnotizing, they do go through efforts to introduce (note i say introduce, not teach/replace/babysit, etc) music, languages, art, colors, shapes, nature, etc.

    note, also, i don’t think disney makes any claims about baby einstein making your kids smarter/develop faster.

    also, baby einstein was started by a mother…not some corporate big-wig. whether or not the mom just wanted a virtual babysitter, well, who knows.

  33. Cowboys_fan says:

    @XopherMV: I don’t argue your opinions other than to say a) I hate Disney – evil empire, b) I am not a parent, and c) I would never use a baby einstein video if I was a parent as they likely are crap. I do however agree Disney is right in this case. Until they can produce real numbers to prove how crappy it is(which shouldn’t be hard), they have no right to post such deregatory info.

  34. yellojkt says:

    George W. Bush praised Baby Einstein in his State Of The Union speech. He wouldn’t back anything that wasn’t a rigorous scientific fact.

  35. dotorg greg says:

    I think the letter’s beef with the press release is largely valid; it goes beyond the findings of the study itself AND the quotes of the researchers.

    The study was conducted via phone, and researchers put the videos people said their kids watched into the four categories, so to that extent, at least, Baby Einstein was studied.

    The irony here is that Baby Einstein built its reputation and its sales on claims that watching the videos has some kind of developmental and educational benefit, which has NEVER been found by peer-reviewed research. Likewise, Iger’s distinction between “interactive” and, what, vegetative programming? has never been established, especially for the 6-24mo age group.

    As for scientifically meaningless anecdotes about little Max and Sofia learning what a clarinet is, there IS research that shows kids learn things from TV. BUT it shows they learn faster from human interaction.

    Still, if Disney’s now ready to embrace rigorous scientific standards for baby-TV research, I say we hold them to it.

  36. gibsonic says:

    @yellojkt:

    that’s right. that’s where I remember first hearing about how the woman who started it became a multi-millioaire when Disney bought her out.(and she stayed in charge of the company)