Recording Industry Promotes Its Parental-Warning Labels

By Andrew Trotter — October 31, 2001 3 min read

The music-recording industry is asking schools to help parents understand its “parental-advisory label,” but some experts say the label is too vague.

To help parents and school officials interpret the label—which is supposed to indicate whether music contains profanity or frank depictions of drug use, sex, or violence—the Washington-based Recording Industry Association of America sent a letter to 200,000 school principals, counselors, local PTA officials, and other community leaders at the beginning of this school year.

The group claims the labeling program has proved useful to parents, but “making more parents aware of the label, however, is the key to its success.”

The letter included a brochure with “frequently asked questions” about the advisory label.

“Overwhelmingly, parents support the parental-advisory program,” said RIAA spokesman Jano Cabrera. But he said more parents need to know about it.

The publicity campaign is being supplemented by a public service announcement distributed to television stations, featuring the musician Quincy Jones.

Label Too Vague?

The label, which spells out in block letters “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content,” is applied to packaging and advertising for music recordings at the discretion of individual music companies and their recording artists.

But critics say the four-word advisory is too vague.

“It’s like announcing a warning ‘foul weather ahead,’ as opposed to [saying] ‘strong winds, heavy rain, or blustery snow,’” said Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It doesn’t give you any information at all,” agreed Jeff McIntyre, the federal-affairs officer for the American Psychological Association, based in Washington. He said the recording industry’s label is “the least useful” and detailed of the labeling systems of the four entertainment industries that have adopted them; the others are the movie, television, and video game industries.

For example, the television guidelines, the result of a compromise between the television industry and child-advocacy groups, are based on age and can be supplemented by the letters V, S, L, D, and FV, for violence, sex, language, suggestive or sexual dialogue, and fantasy violence.

That labeling system, though, has been criticized as being too complicated, and for not spelling out the meaning of the supplemental letters.

In addition, the warning labels that are either too general or based on age can create a “boomerang, a forbidden-fruit effect” that attracts children to the labeled music, Mr. Kunkel said.

He said a better solution is to have labels that give content-based information that describes the questionable material without assigning age categories. “There is no universal standard of what is appropriate for all children of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds—and even if there was, we’re not convinced that the TV industry is the best arbiter, determiner of what those standards should be,” he said.

A study released last year by the Federal Trade Commission said that in spite of the labeling systems, companies in the music, movie, and video game industries routinely targeted children under 17 in marketing products that their own ratings systems deemed inappropriate or warranted parental caution due to violent content.

But Mark H. Kuranz, a counselor at J.I. Case High School, in Racine, Wis., welcomed the RIAA’S outreach, although he had not received the mailing. “I could think of a zillion ways to use it—at open houses, parent- teacher conferences,” he said.

Mr. Kuranz, who is a past president of the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Counselors Association, said that even if the warning label is not detailed enough to satisfy advocates, it still might alert parents to listen more closely to their children’s music.

“Lots of parents just aren’t aware,” he said. “They don’t listen to the music their kids listen to.”

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