Selling violence to kids

Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post: When it comes to children, movies and violence, it's always been hard to tell whether the H stands for Hollywood or Hypocrisy. You have the studios and recording companies piously invoking their cultural integrity and First Amendment rights as they peddle stuff with no discernible redeeming virtues. You have the movie theater chains pretending they can't control the teens who buy tickets to PG-rated films at the multiplex and then stroll in to watch R-rated movies. And you have the politicians, like Al Gore, whose sensibilities on the matter seem to depend on whether the day is devoted primarily to soliciting money from the moguls or votes from everyone else.

Now the Federal Trade Commission has added a useful new chapter to this tale of two-facedness. After a year-long study, the FTC released a report Monday that documents how the movie, recording and video-games industries deliberately undermine the voluntary ratings that they tout with such puffed-up chests. One internal memorandum on marketing an R-rated movie said the goal was to "make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film." And that was typical. Of 44 movies studied, marketing plans for 28 specifically cited children younger than 17 as part of the target audience. And for even more of the movies -- as for many of the inappropriate records and video games examined -- advertising and promotion were aimed squarely at children. At the same time, the commission found, most retailers don't make much effort to restrict children's access to violent material, most children 13 to 16 had little trouble buying explicit music or Mature-rated electronic games, and child-testers managed to attend R-rated movies without an adult in roughly half the theaters they tried to enter.

Most studio spokesmen went AWOL as the FTC study was released. Hilary Rosen, president of the recording industry's trade association, said "parents, not the government, have the responsibility" for guiding children to appropriate music. Pardon us for not saluting that stout stand against censorship by an industry that has been deliberately undermining those same parental efforts -- urging as many children as possible to shell out their $14.99 for CDs that have been labeled, so responsibly, as inappropriate.

Mr. Gore took to the Oprah Winfrey show to berate the entertainment industry and tout his wife, Tipper's, longtime crusade against obscene or violent lyrics. Never mind that Mrs. Gore apologized to the industry in 1987, when her husband was gearing up for his first presidential run. And never mind that Mr. Gore himself, according to the Los Angeles Times, last year assured potential donors in Hollywood that he had nothing to do with President Clinton's commissioning of the FTC study. Nor is it clear what Mr. Gore would do either, save bluster.

Mindful as it should be of the First Amendment, the FTC wants the industry to police itself: to set standards that would prohibit pitching R- or M-rated or explicit material to children under 17, and to impose penalties on those who violate the rule. Enforcement is the key: The electronic game industry, for example, already has a policy against advertising M-rated games to younger children, but the FTC found it is routinely ignored. The recording industry has just adopted new guidelines against marketing explicit-labeled music in publications mostly read by those under 16; but will the new rules be observed?

The commission also wants manufacturers to encourage tighter controls at the retail level, and to do a more-comprehensive job of displaying ratings or labels and informing parents about what they mean. All of this is not too much to ask.

In the end, as Ms. Rosen said, it is a parent's job to determine what movies or music or video games are suitable for a child -- and to enforce that standard. Officials aren't telling moviemakers, musicians or game designers to alter the content of their work, and they shouldn't, no matter how much some might wish for relief from the bloody fare that seems to grow more gratuitous, explicit and misogynistic by the year. The entertainment industry has already taken steps to identify material that's not appropriate for children; it isn't a big leap to suggest that such material not be pitched to children. Then the ball would be more fairly back in the parents' court.

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