Congress Grills Hollywood Over Marketing Practices

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Entertainment-industry executives staunchly defended their marketing strategies at a Senate hearing last week, following the release of a scathing Federal Trade Commission report that accuses the nation's leading movie, television, and music companies of methodically targeting violent material to children as young as 12.

For More Information

Read "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording and Electronic Game Industries," from the Federal Trade Commission. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

"I stand by our art, and I stand by our restraint," Strauss Zelnik, the president of BMG Entertainment, told members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee at the Sept. 13 hearing. BMG represents hip-hop artists such as Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G., and other rap artists whose music the committee members found offensive. "The ultimate responsibility for what music children listen to rests with parents in their homes, not public officials," Mr. Zelnik added.

The FTC report, released Sept. 11, maintains that the industry made "little effort" to restrict access to violent material and that many violent movies, popular music acts, and video games were targeted at young children, in violation of codes of conduct the industry itself helped to create.

More Labeling?

Among the examples cited in the commission's yearlong study was a memorandum about an unidentified R-rated movie from a Hollywood studio. "Our goal was to find the elusive teen-target audience and make sure everyone between 12-18 was exposed to the film," the memo said.

Under the rating system voluntarily adopted by the film industry, adults are required to accompany children under 17 to R-rated movies.

Yet films with an R rating were widely advertised during such television shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "South Park," and "Xena: Warrior Princess," programs that draw large adolescent audiences, the FTC study found.

Likewise, violent video games with an M, or "mature" rating, are not supposed to be sold to children younger than 17. But the commission found that 51 percent of the electronic games with an M rating "expressly included children under 17 in their target audience."

Movie studios' promotional efforts were also singled out for criticism in the report. It cites efforts by one company to deliver fliers and free passes for R-rated films to high schools and youth groups, such as the Campfire Boys and Girls.

The report also lists numerous comic books, magazines, and other children's publications that contained advertisements for R-rated films and video games.

"The comic books in the schoolhouse couldn't even protect our children from the studio hacks," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, said as he opened the hearing last week.

A panel representing physicians and psychologists testified that exposure to violence in the media makes children more prone to committing violence.

"Just as every cigarette you smoke increases the chances you will get cancer, every exposure to violence will make a child more likely to become violent," asserted Jeff McIntyre, the legal-affairs director of the American Psychological Association.

Sen. McCain said he planned to discuss a range of remedies with entertainment-industry executives in the coming weeks, including more detailed labeling on all their media formats. "I think a can of soup should be labeled. This labeling is a way of informing both consumers and families as to what the content is," he said.

Not So Simple

Some of the entertainment representatives who testified before the committee only half-jokingly said it felt as if they were going before a firing squad. "OK, give me a blindfold and a cigarette," said Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

All the industry representatives pointed out that marketing is a complex business, and that the FTC report oversimplifies and sensationalizes the issue.

Peter Moore, the president of Sega America, the maker of popular video games such as Tomb Raider and Zombie Revenge, said simply because Sega advertises its products during "Baywatch" and "The Simpsons" doesn't mean it is targeting minors. Seventy-one percent of those who watch "The Simpsons" are older than 18, he said. "It's not fair to bypass media simply because of the possibility of spillage to a younger demographic," he added.

Most of the entertainment executives said they were open to further discussions with the committee about how to curtail children's exposure to violent media. But they warned that determining what is appropriate for children, beyond the current rating systems, is near impossible because people have different notions of what's acceptable.

Vol. 20, Issue 3, Pages 26, 28

Published in Print: September 20, 2000, as Congress Grills Hollywood Over Marketing Practices
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Web Resources
  • In a statement about the report, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky says the purpose of the report is to encourage the entertainment industry to implement "self-regulatory initiatives" to help parents choose appropriate material for children; the purpose, he says, is not to regulate the freedom of speech.
  • Media Matters is the American Academy of Pediatrics' national public education campaign dedicated to making parents and professionals aware of how the media influences children. Articles from their advocacy campaign include Dr. Michael Rich's address at the Public Health Summit on Entertainment Violence in Washington, D.C., July 26, 2000. Also, read a "Three-year Study Documents Nature of Television Violence," from the AAP News, July 1998.
  • The National Institute on Media and the Family's mission is to "to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm of media on children and families through research and education." They also develop tools to help parents and educators understand the media's effect on children.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union criticizes the FTC report in their statement accusing the agency of bending to political winds instead of engaging in solid research. The FTC should have emphasized that no causal relationship has been shown to exist between viewing violence and later violent behavior, the ACLU says, and that restricting speech is not the answer.
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