New York (AP) - An advocacy group is asking the Federal Trade Commission to halt ads for a widely promoted product line called Your Baby Can Read, saying the claims of teaching infants to read are false and deceptive.
The complaint was filed Tuesday by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has led a series of campaigns against what critics call the "genius baby" industry.
Your Baby Can Read - which consists of interrelated videos, flash cards and books - was developed in the late 1990s by Robert Titzer, an educator with a Ph.D in human performance from Indiana University. More than 1 million families have used the product since then, according to Titzer's Carlsbad, Calif.-based company, Your Baby Can LLC, which advertises it extensively on TV, at exhibitions, and on its own website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.
The website says the best time for children to learn reading is as an infant and toddler, before they go to school; it says they can start as young as 3 months old. "Seize this small window of opportunity," it urges parents.
The complaint filed with the FTC rejects this "window of opportunity" claim, as well as many of the other assertions in the ads.
The marketing claims "are designed to take advantage of parents' natural desire to provide every possible advantage for their young children," the complaint says. "The claims are false and misleading because the product does not teach babies to read."
The complaint asks the FTC to stop the company's "deceptive marketing practices in all forms" and also says restitution should be sought for those who purchased the product.
The company, provided a copy of the complaint by The Associated Press, responded with a brief statement from CEO Denise Kovac.
"We are very proud of our accomplishments as a company," she said. "Thousands of parents have shared the success stories of their children with us, and hundreds have sent us videos of their children's progress."
The deluxe version of Your Baby Can Read sells on the company's website for $200; less expensive versions are available in stores. The videos range up to 30 minutes in length, and parents are urged to let their infants watch them twice a day over a period of several months.
The company's Facebook page is full of hopeful comments from parents, such as one from a mother in Australia saying her own education got off to a slow start and she was eager to give her child better opportunities. Queries came from Dubai, Jamaica, Singapore, the Philippines.
On Amazon.com, which offers new and used versions of the product, there's a compilation of 136 customer reviews, ranging from highly positive to scathingly negative.
ConsumerSearch.com, which bills itself as an independent and objective evaluator of consumer products, offers a nuanced appraisal of Your Baby Can Read.
"It's easy to find academic researchers and educators who dispute Titzer's claims," says the appraisal. "Despite these criticisms ... many parents say the expensive program works - not necessarily for all infants and toddlers, but certainly for some."
One of the experts who has assessed Your Baby Can Read is Dr. Stephen Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine.
He said this week he still stands by an article he wrote in 2009, depicting the product as a gimmick designed to exploit anxious parents with unsubstantiated claims.
"Forcing kids to learn some task before their brains are naturally ready does not have any advantage," he wrote in his Neurologica Blog. "The whole `baby genius' industry for anxious parents is misguided. This is just the latest incarnation of this fiction."
Dr. Nonie Lesaux, a child development expert at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, also has examined Your Baby Can Read and disputes several of its promotional claims.
"We don't have any evidence that the children who respond to those flash cards are going to be better readers later on," she said.
"There's a lot that babies recognize and can be cued up to know," she added. "But it's rote learning, it's memorizing words... It's a very clear case of misuse of the term `reading.'"
Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says there's no authoritative evidence to support the Your Baby Can Read claims.
"There isn't a legitimate reading expert in the country who says this is a good way to teach reading to kids," she said. "Instead, this product is taking babies away from activities that are educational for them - interacting with adults who love them, hands-on creative exploratory play."
She also contended that much of the marketing preys on "vulnerable parents" - including those insecure about their own educational background or whose children have disabilities.
Angela Campbell, a Georgetown University law professor who prepared the complaint, said there is no set timetable for an investigation if the FTC decides to pursue one. Often in these types of cases, she said, the FTC tries to negotiate a consent decree in which the party accused of deceptive advertising agrees to make changes and pay restitution.