Saturday, March 13, 2010

Disney versus Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood

I'm ashamed to say that I'd never heard of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) or its suit against Baby Einstein, a Walt Disney company, until I learned that the Judge Baker Children's Center, an organization I admire, kicked them out.

Here's the story as I understand it.

In 1997 Julie and Bill Clark founded a company to produce Baby Einstein, a video pitched to infants. In 2001 Disney bought a majority ownership share. The company grew like Topsy despite a strong recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under 2 should watch no television.

In 2006 the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood complained to the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby (another producer of videos for tots) falsely described their products as educational. The companies dropped the word "educational" from their websites, but last year CCFC and a team of public interest lawyers threatened a class action lawsuit unless Disney offered to refund the full purchase price to anyone who purchased a video after 2004.

In October 2009 Disney agreed to offer the refunds for products purchased between June 5, 2004 and September 4, 2009. (The offer ended last week.) CCFC claimed victory.

But CCFC's victory came at a cost. This week the New York Times reported on what Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Media Center at Judge Baker, told them about the extrusion of CCFC:
“The Judge Baker staff informed us they didn’t want us to talk to the press, or to say anything about Baby Einstein. They suggested to me that Disney was threatening to sue Judge Baker. We’d been doing this [kind of advocacy] for 10 years at Judge Baker with no problem. We took up a thing with McDonald’s putting advertisements on report cards in Florida. The only thing that seemed to cause a problem was this Disney thing.

I asked the lawyer who had talked to Disney, point-blank, whether Disney had threatened to sue, and he said no. But I still don’t know the content of the conversations with Disney.”
Dr. Susan Linn, Director of CCFC, framed the ethics of the situation this way:
“It’s really chilling, that any corporation, and particularly one marketing itself as child friendly, would lean on a children’s center. And it’s heartbreaking that a children’s center would cave in.”
It's not unethical for a company - even the tobacco industry - to advocate for its interests. But if Disney threatened to sue JBCC it was going too far.

Today's Boston Globe editorial "Bowing to corporate America, Judge Baker Center loses face," scolded JBCC:
The Baker center clearly does not see the work of the campaign as central to its mission, the mental health of children. That’s a cramped view. So many of the problems children face today, from obesity to lack of exercise to inability to concentrate in classrooms, are directly related to the media that surround them. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood was a jewel in the Baker center crown.
I think posing the ethical challenge as a black and white "standing firm" versus "backing down" choice is too simple. Here's what I would have advised if I'd been consulting to Judge Baker:

"When I looked up your mission, here's what I found:
'The Judge Baker Children's Center promotes the best possible mental health of children through the integration of research, intervention, training and advocacy.

• Through research we identify best practices.

• Through intervention we bring those practices to children and families of diverse communities.

• Through training we disseminate skills in research and quality care.

• Through advocacy we use scientific knowledge to expand public awareness and inform public policy.'
Evidence-based advocacy is clearly part of what you're all about. And the CCFC is following guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. That's as good as it can get for official sanction!

But you're a small organization. Your advocacy mission is to inform and educate, not to litigate. If you conclude that being the source of litigation exposes your full mission to too much risk it's ethically acceptable to distance yourself from it.

But you should do that in a way that "promotes best practices" and "informs public policy."

That means using the process of extruding CCFC as a source of public education. Lay out what's happening. Here's what you might say:
'We're proud of the superb work CCFC has done on behalf of children. But that work may be attacked in court. Litigation would be too costly for us. In 2009 Disney earned $35,149,000,000. Our 2009 income was $12,176,00. Disney can afford litigation. We can't.

Therefore, to protect the full range of our mission, and to keep CCFC free of any constraints we might be tempted to impose, we have arranged to separate the two organizations. In place of the support we've been giving them we will make a comparable donation to their fundraising campaign. We share CCFC's goals on behalf of children. We admire their successful advocacy. And we want to continue to work with them in the future. But without the organizational separation we'd be putting all of our other efforts at too much risk.'
Ironically, the flap over extruding CCFC makes CCFC more prominent and puts some egg on Disney's face! I know that CCFC got at least one new donor (me), and I'm sure they'll get more.

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