Saturday, October 07, 2006

Baby Einstein vs Barbie

Po Bronson (What Should I Do with My Life?), who pokes holes in conventional wisdom and examines social trends with refreshing clarity in his down to earth blog Social Studies, had an article in Time Magazine this week on the media hype that surrounds the spate of books and articles written about family issues that only affect 10% of the wealthiest U.S. population. The side effect of this anxiety is that it causes widespread panic where it need not and contributes to (for example) lower rates of college enrollment for Latinos (media tells them college is too expensive and competitive). Claude Fisher, a Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley said, "A social trend is whatever is happening to a newspaper editor and the editor's friends." Bronson's point is well taken, but isn't the media targeting this affluent audience? Isn't it all about advertising dollars and marketing to the most desirable demographic?

Still, Bronson could have chosen a better example than baby einstein (I understand the name says it all) I have a few Baby Einstein books and videos and they're extremely boring. Perhaps Baby Einstein isn't selling as many products because they don't understand kids. Elliot loves science and history and we have tons of books that really spark his intellectual curiosity (such as the Eyewitness series board books for babies to encyclopedias for older kids). Eyewitness gets kids.

As for Barbie, I haven't had to face that issue with my boys (although I did make the decision to let the boys play with small action figures who have weapons - a pirate without a sword??). I cut her legs off, tattooed her face and melted her hair, but I loved Barbie... Action figures (including barbies) are very important to imaginative play. It's developmentally appropriate and intellectually stimulating to play with dolls throughout childhood. Baby Einstein or Leap Frog or any other educational toy is not in direct opposition to action figures or dolls.

How media elitism misrepresents the American family - Po Bronson in Time MagazineWho would win in a fight, Baby Einstein or Barbie? Baby Einstein isn't a character. He's just a brand. So that imaginary fight wouldn't be a fistfight. It'd be a fight for mind share and market share. It'd be a fight for dollars. Every day, in Targets and Wal-Marts across the country, those two brands go at it. Which one do you give your kid? It depends on how old your child is, obviously, but as any good supermom will tell you, Baby Einstein is the choice of parents who want their daughter to speak Swahili by seventh grade and go to Harvard. They leave Barbies for people who, they imagine, just want their daughter to have a smile on her face and go to a great state college.

So who's winning? It's not close. Barbie crushes Baby Einstein. Last year the Baby Einstein brand sold $200 million worth of products. The Barbie brand's sales were 15 times as high. A giant $3 billion.

I bring that up because I sense the media are ignoring the true American family and instead are putting the dramas of affluent families on Page One. It would be O.K. if they delivered those portraits with a sardonic wink, so that we might laugh at the foibles of the well-off. But there is no wink. In the eyes of the media, we all buy Baby Einstein.

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