August 13, 2007Jeffrey H. Brotman
Mark A. Emmert, Ph.D.
PresidentUniversity of Washington
301 Gerberding HallBox 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
- 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 -- 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
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. 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
"the study's co relational nature precludes drawing causal
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
Robert A. Iger
cc: Stanley H. Barer
Craig W. Cole
William H. Gates
Frederick C. Kiga
Constance L. Proctor