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Angering the Mouse: Did a Pioneering Children's Advocacy Group Pay the Price for Taking on Disney?

Maureen Turner
Valley Advocate
March 18, 2010

Since its founding in 2000, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has taken on some formidable foes, with impressive results.

The Boston-based nonprofit, which works to counter the ill effects of consumer culture on kids, has pressured Scholastic Books to stop selling the heavily sexualized Bratz doll products in the catalogs it distributes in schools. It's organized parents against BusRadio, a closed-circuit commercial radio station created for school buses. (The company ultimately went out of business.) It's fought against all kinds of sneaky marketing efforts targeting kids, from report card envelopes that contained Happy Meal ads to Cover Girl product placements in novels written for girls.

Then, in 2007, CCFC took on the bigfoot of kids' marketers: Disney. Specifically, the organization went after the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company, which for years had marketed its videos for babies for their supposed educational value, despite the lack of any scientific evidence—and despite a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under the age of two should watch no television.

CCFC took its complaint against Baby Einstein and a similar company, Brainy Baby, to the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that the educational claims amounted to false and deceptive advertising. In response, Baby Einstein dropped the word "educational" from its marketing materials. Last year, the company also began offering refunds to families who had bought its videos, after a group of public interest lawyers threatened a class-action suit.

CCFC celebrated the victory. "We see it as an acknowledgment by the leading baby video company that baby videos are not educational, and we hope other baby media companies will follow suit by offering refunds," psychiatrist Susan Linn—CCFC's director and author of several well-regarded books on kids, the media and marketing—told the New York Times in October.

But now CCFC says it's suffering payback for that victory. Last month, the campaign says, it was evicted from its long-time home at the Judge Baker Children's Center, a Harvard-affiliated children's mental health center, in apparent response to pressure from unhappy Disney officials.

*

Until recently, CCFC was a program affiliated with Judge Baker's Media Center. JBCC describes the Media Center's mission as "researching and evaluating the impact of modern media on the lives and choices of young people. ... The Media Center identifies its potentially harmful effects and works to persuade today's decision-makers in the media to develop responsible, positive and enriching programming for children."

In a letter sent out last week to supporters, CCFC said that last fall, as the media was covering Baby Einstein's agreement to offer refunds for its videos, "representatives from Disney contacted JBCC, and our relationship with the Center was changed irrevocably. We were pressured to stop talking to the press about Baby Einstein. Questions were raised about whether CCFC's mission was appropriate for a JBCC program.

"Finally, in January, we were told that we had to leave—quickly. And, for our remaining time under JBCC's auspices, we were forbidden from conducting any advocacy aimed at a specific corporation or product."

The letter, which was signed by Linn and Josh Golin, CCFC's associate director, chastised Disney for allegedly pressuring a children's agency. "It is chilling that any corporation, particularly one marketing itself as family friendly, would lean on a children's mental health center," they wrote. "We have great admiration for the Center's staff, and the work they do for children. At the same time, we are deeply saddened that the institution ceded its ground and stopped supporting CCFC and our efforts to challenge powerful interests in order to protect children and support parents."

The conflict inspired Alvin Poussaint, a renowned Harvard psychiatrist perhaps most widely known for his work with Bill Cosby (he's written a book with the comedian/children's advocate and was as a consultant on The Cosby Show) to refuse an award he'd been scheduled to receive from JBCC. Poussaint—who is director of the JBCC's Media Center as well as a member of CCFC's steering committee—was to have received the World of Children Award at a gala last weekend. He decided to turn it down in protest against CCFC's eviction.

In a Feb. 10 letter to JBCC's president, John Weisz, Poussaint wrote that he has been "filled with great anguish" since being informed that the center was "pushing out" CCFC.

"I find the timing of your decision to expel CCFC from Judge Baker very difficult to understand, coming just before I was to receive the World of Children award, which was supposed to be a celebration—not a repudiation—of my work," he wrote. "Splitting CCFC and the Media Center is like breaking up a close family....

"You told me that the mission of CCFC—to protect children from harmful exploitation by corporate marketers—is not in line with the Judge Baker mission," Poussaint continued. "Indeed, we were told that we could no longer criticize any corporations, even if they were exploiting children. You implied that advocacy on behalf of children was not a significant mission of JBCC. I respectfully disagree. I believe it is the obligation of all health and mental health institutions, and professionals, to stand up to an entity that is harming children..."

In a recent New York Times article, Poussaint said that JBCC staff "suggested to me that Disney was threatening to sue Judge Baker."

*

Baby Einstein denies any involvement in the split between CCFC and the Judge Baker Children's Center. In response to an inquiry from the Advocate, the company released this statement: "The Baby Einstein Company has always embraced and applauds responsible advocacy aimed at improving standards to which children's products are made. Organizations that seek to further their cause at any cost and without any regard to facts are counter-productive. This type of behavior is reprehensible and they should be ashamed of mis-leading [sic] the public in this fashion. The Baby Einstein Company had no role in the CCFC's ouster from their location, finger pointing on this matter is nothing more than pure fiction."

Michele Urbancic, JBCC's vice president for advancement, forwarded to the Advocate a copy of a letter sent to center supporters announcing the cancellation of the World of Children Award. The letter, she wrote in an email, would "provide ... another perspective on this situation."

That letter, signed by Weisz and Kathryn Cade, chair of JBCC's Board of Trustees, described the decision to cancel the celebration after Poussaint's refusal to accept the reward as a "significant letdown for our organization," adding, " we wanted to be in touch with you to explain how it is that we find ourselves in this difficult position."

The letter described CCFC's focus on corporate advertising as outside JBCC's core focus on "[r]esearch, training, and direct services involving best practices for children's mental health."

"We believe the CCFC has been very effective in slowing the pace at which some corporations have pursued advertising campaigns that prey on the vulnerabilities of children," Weisz and Cade wrote. "It is the methods used by CCFC, some of which have the potential to utilize litigation to achieve this success—in tandem with the shifting focus of the Judge Baker Children's Center—that has led to the current difference of views. ....

"As CCFC has continued to expand the scope of its aggressive advocacy, the costs and risks associated with this activity are no longer costs and risks that the Baker is in a position to assume, especially given that this type of advocacy is not at the heart of its work," they continued. "The Baker Board of Directors and management believe that for the CCFC program to be most effective and to continue its work unfettered, it should become an independent organization."

Weisz and Cade also countered the notion that CCFC was unceremoniously pushed from its home, saying that JBCC's board had raised its concerns with the campaign several months ago, and "asked Dr. Poussaint and Dr. Linn to work with us to identify what was needed to make their transition to independence successful. In the past the Baker has provided financial support for the activities of CCFC, and it was our hope and intent to continue to provide support through a smooth transition."

JBCC was surprised, they added, by Poussaint's decision to refuse the award, but still held him and his work in high regard.

In a follow-up interview, Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for JBCC, told the Advocate that the center's attorney had spoken to attorneys representing Baby Einstein. "What our attorney indicated is that at no time did counsel, the counsel for Baby Einstein or Disney, communicate to him any threat that a lawsuit would be filed against Judge Baker Children's Center," she said.

Echoing the letter sent to JBCC supporters, Schwartzman said, "The decision to separate CCFC from the Judge Baker Center was a decision based on the total mission of the Judge Baker Center and the activities of CCFC which the board felt were putting the total Judge Baker Center at risk.

"It wasn't about Disney," she continued. "Disney was emblematic of a broader issue, which is that the targeting of individual large corporations, and public statements made against individual large corporations, while effective in terms of advocating in terms of a specific issue, posed too much risk" for JBCC.

CCFC, Schwartzman said, had two employees and an annual budget of $294,000; the entire Judge Baker Center employs 191 people and has a budget of $14.7 million. "It was irresponsible to continue to have the activities of a very small program of the Judge Baker Center pose that level of risk to the entire organization," she said. "And the board was loath to have that continue."

*

CCFC, meanwhile, is not without a home: the campaign is now based at Third Sector New England, a Boston nonprofit that offers consulting services and funding to other nonprofits. And it's vowing to continue its mission.

"The sudden loss of the home where we flourished was a tremendous blow," Linn and Golin wrote to supporters. "Our move was unexpected and expensive. We know that Disney—and Nickelodeon, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Scholastic and all of the companies whose profits are threatened when we stand up for children—would love to see CCFC go away. But we are more determined than ever to continue our important work."


 

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