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A Word (or More!) with Baby Einstein's Founder

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Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark has had a rough couple of years.

Julie Aigner-Clark

Vivian Manning-Schaffel: After a breast cancer diagnosis, she learned that Baby Einstein, the brand of DVDs inspired by videos she made for her own children, came under fire after researchers from the University of Washington claimed that watching TV was harmful for children under two. As a result, Disney, the current owner of the Baby Einstein brand, began issuing refunds for these DVDs.

In this exclusive interview, Aigner-Clark sat down with us -- mom-to-mom -- to clear the air about this controversy.

ML: You could easily sit back and say this is no longer your problem. You sold Baby Einstein to Disney, but are taking steps to clear your name. Tell us how you and your husband decided to clear the air about this.

JAC: As soon as this all hit the press two years ago, Bill started demanding the data from the university about the study. At first they said, "We don't have to send it to you." Meanwhile, the days and legal fees were accumulating as we're sending these letters asking for the information so we can conduct independent research, because we believe it's a bunch of crap, and that we can certainly demonstrate these guys have been lying. It came to the point where they have no more time. It was simply a matter of my getting healthy again so we can focus on this again. We're doing this because our name is at stake. This is not a financial deal. We are not asking for any money. If we are awarded any from the suit, every penny is going to breast cancer research. This is about restoring something that we really love and that we created for our kids.

It first really hit me two months ago. The gentleman I was speaking with on the phone asked what I do, and when I told him I was the founder of Baby Einstein, I actually felt like, because of the press, I had to defend it. It's too bad, because I've gotten thousands of letters from moms with sick kids who say the only thing that kept their babies calm was one of our videos.

Disney had previously said if you believe that Baby Einstein would make your baby smarter, and you didn't think it did what you wanted it to do, send it back and we'll refund your money. This is what any good company should do. They issued this statement, and nobody sent anything back.

Then these researchers really went after the press, saying, "Baby Einstein is telling you to send your videos back because those videos don't work." After that, people did start returning their videos, and it was so bad that people would go onto eBay, buy videos for two bucks a piece, then send them back to Disney to get fifteen dollars back. It was ridiculous.

ML: A sign of desperate times, it seems.

JAC: I would have done it differently. For me, it's been very, very personal because I feel my legacy and reputation have been jeopardized. I believe that what I did and what I made is terrific. I would love to stand up to any of those researchers, face to face, and ask what they are talking about.

From a realistic perspective, our children are exposed to the media. Kids see a lot of stuff that is pretty crazy. I recently went to see "The Lovely Bones," and there was a woman sitting two seats away from me with her baby, probably because she couldn't get a babysitter. Not that the baby would understand the movie anyway, but it blows my mind. So I'm thinking to myself, "And people are having a hard time with babies watching Baby Mozart?"

We've recently started looking at some of the old titles again, and in a jillion years, you couldn't find anything controversial in these videos other than the idea that babies this age shouldn't be watching TV.

Why it has recently come out as a big story in the past few years, in my opinion, had a lot to do with a couple of researchers and scientists who decided they could have an agenda -- to tell the world how horrible it is to let babies watch TV. They could do research to support that, and get grants, and set out to do their "research."

They are more than willing to reach out to the media and talk about how videos like Baby Einstein harm babies, but they won't produce the studies to back it up. And how juicy a story is that -- that a video like Baby Einstein could harm your baby? I can tell you that they will not participate in showing us their raw data because they've conveniently lost their research. And Disney has not done a particularly good job of defending Baby Einstein. They've taken a backseat in this whole deal, hoping that it would all blow over and go away.

ML: The fear of litigation is powerful.

JAC: But I can't think of a company that I'd be more afraid of suing me than Disney, and they've taken a backseat and haven't done very much. In the meantime, I'm here in Colorado getting chemo, having surgery and having my ovaries out and all this crap that I've had to do to keep myself healthy. The stress for me has been formidable.

ML: My mother used to watch soaps with me as a baby. It's not that you use the TV as a babysitter, but sometimes, you've got to shower. Compared to what I was exposed to on TV as a baby, I think your DVDs contain incredibly mindful content. And clearly you called your product Baby Einstein because you are a marketer -- not because you promised genius.

JAC: I was thinking of names and how a baby might look at a mobile or toy, and how it might look different to them, and about content that you'd want your child to be exposed to. I didn't really want to call it "Baby Stimulation." I needed a name that would speak volumes about what this product was.

To me, Baby Einstein communicated everything that it was in the shortest possible way. It's about curiosity, and good things, and being stimulated. Einstein literally came to me, and I drew that little head logo. I wrote that myself with crayons. I said to my husband, "I think I have a name for this video." And my husband goes, "I don't think that'll work. It's more about science." But it worked out, and he eventually believed it was a great name. Einstein's love for music equaled his love for science. Do people think that because I call a product Baby Mozart that their child would start playing the piano or violin? Of course not. You know? It was all really, really misconstrued.

For the most part, for me, it's like, "Really? You're telling me, with all the crap that's going on in the world, that listening to classical music is going to harm a child?"

ML: It's not like you named the product "Einstein" to literally promise genius -- you did it to imply the encouraging of thinking and brain development. What reasons do these researchers give for not producing the research?

JAC: They lost it. Taxpayers pay for that research through a number of grants. It is their obligation to share it with the public. But they lost it. We've been waiting for two years since we started this process.

ML: What are your next steps?

JAC: They have another two to three weeks in which to respond. A trial date has been set for June 2011.

ML: What do you do in the meantime?

JAC: There's another court order where they could find this research in another two weeks.

In the meantime, I'm writing a book called Your Love Is the Best Medicine, about how to explain cancer to children. When you have cancer, you are so afraid your kids are going to think you are going to die. You can tell them you are going to get better, but they see you throw up and lose your hair, and it looks to them like you are dying.

I wanted to write a book that you could read to your children before you start treatment that described what you'd go through, but stated how important their love was and how talking with them could make a big difference in your healing. Harper Collins is publishing it in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

ML: Way to turn it around!

JAC: Thank you!

next: Fool Your Kid into Getting Fit
5 comments so far | Post a comment now
dmill January 28, 2010, 5:36 AM

We have Baby Einstein videos and my youngest who’s 4 still pulls them out occassionally. I never thought that they would make my kids smarter, but they loved the music and would get so excited when they saw a toy that we had. Then they’d run, get it and play with it until something else on the dvd caught their interest. They were also great for traveling. I would take the kids by myself to visit family 9 hours away; having a dvd player in the car was the only way I’d attempt it with 2 young kids. I’d much rather they listen to classical music and see connections between different things and ideas than some of the other videos for kids.

Kelly January 28, 2010, 6:13 AM

I am happy letting my child see some brightly colored toys and listen to classical music for half an hour. I too am also amazed at what some parents deem appropriate for their kids to watch. My husband and I went to see Wolverine last year in the movies and not only did a Mom have her infant with her but her older child too, he looked like he was 3 or 4 years old. I can’t believe he was even let in.

Angela January 28, 2010, 7:49 AM

I don’t show my 13 month old much TV, but there are a few times when he’s been sick and cranky that it’s been a lifesaver. I don’t think it’s made him any smarter, but it’s ridiculous to think that it’s harmed him. Yeah if it’s done excessively it’s not good, but that goes for almost everything. It wouldn’t be good for his development if I left him in his crib all day either, but that doesn’t mean cribs are bad for babies.

nutmac January 28, 2010, 12:16 PM

What’s next? Put “this beverage is hot” warning on coffee cups?

Shannon January 28, 2010, 3:42 PM

My son has watched Baby Einstein videos since he was 4 months old & loves them. He is now 17 months old & he recently got the 26 dvd box set for xmas. He adores the videos & I don’t mind watching them with him either : ) By the way I’ve learned all the baby signs on the sign language video & my son learned one too (eat). Love baby einstein & even have the jumper & play mat that my son used all the time until he was too big.

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