Out of the mouths of babes
Tell people your baby is adorable and no doubt you have the photos to back it up. But market a product called “Your Baby Can Read!” and you better have real proof. According to a lawsuit filed by the FTC, ads for the “Your Baby Can Read!” program made false and deceptive claims that the product could teach infants and toddlers to read.
The ads were everywhere — on network and cable television stations like Lifetime, Discovery Kids, Disney DX, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, as well as on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. In addition, people could buy the product at major retailers across the country.
What did the company say the product, which retailed for about $200, could do? One ad showed tots as young as 14 months old identifying words on flash cards. Later in the ad, a mother says: “I saw the program when I was pregnant and said we had to have it, especially with all the testimonials. . . . So I think at three months is when we had started Your Baby Can Read and she loved it. And then I think about the nine month mark, she was starting to pick up the words.”
A print ad for Your Baby Can Read! said “Imagine . . . Your toddler reading YOU a story!” In a TV ad, a two-year-old is shown reading Charlotte’s Web aloud: “And she took hold of the axe and . . .” (We didn’t remember Charlotte’s Web as being quite that spine-tingling, but we’ll take her word for it.) By three, that same little girl “read her first Harry Potter book and she fell in love with it.”Another three-year-old was equally amazing. According to her mom, “I have a film of her on vacation. She walked up to a ‘Beware of Mountain Lion’ sign, and it’s three paragraphs and she just read it to us.” There on the screen was the little girl warning her parents, “Make plenty of noise while you hike so as to reduce the chances of surprising a lion. I read it to you, too.”
Just proud parents and precocious kids? Not according to the ads. Both broadcast and print promotions featured the endorsement of Robert Titzer, Ph.D., “who created the revolutionary early learning system for his own daughter.” Over a dizzying array of charts, graphs, and statistics about synaptic formation, sensory pathways, and the like, Dr. Titzer emphasized that the program’s results were backed by proof: “In all of these tests, the control group babies were at average or below average, whereas the Your Baby Can Read group babies had overall higher language scores. They had cognitive functioning scores higher than the control group babies. The Your Baby Can Read group babies did better than the control group babies in every area.”
Pretty impressive stuff — or at least impressive enough to generate more than $185 million in sales since 2008. But according to the FTC, the proof didn’t live up to the promises. The complaint alleges that the ads made false and deceptive claims that the program teaches infants as young as 9 months old to read, that kids will be able to read books like Charlotte’s Web and Harry Potter at 3 or 4, that the program will allow them to perform better in school and later in life than kids who don’t use it, and that scientific studies prove that the program can teach infants and children to read.
Named in the complaint are Your Baby Can LLC, the corporation behind the promotion; Hugh Penton, Jr., President and CEO of Your Baby Can until March 2010; and Dr. Titzer, who became Your Baby Can’s Executive VP in 2009. The FTC also charged that as an expert endorser, Dr. Titzer didn’t exercise his purported expertise in infant research in the form of an examination or testing of the program at least as extensive as an expert would normally conduct to support the conclusions he made in the ads.
Hugh Penton and the corporate defendant have agreed to settle the FTC’s charges. The order bars them from misrepresenting the efficacy of any product advertised to teach reading or speech, enhance cognitive ability, or provide a broad variety of other benefits. Here’s a provision FTC remedies watchers will find interesting: The order bans their further use of the trade name “Your Baby Can Read!”
The settlement also imposes a $185 million judgment, the company’s gross sales since January 2008. Once the corporation pays $500,000, the remainder will be suspended due to its inability to make additional payments because of its failing financial condition. Your Baby Can has represented that it’s going out of business, but if it turns out the financial information it gave the FTC was false, the full amount of the judgment will become due.
The FTC’s lawsuit against Dr. Titzer is pending in federal court in California.