Not Music to FTC's Ears

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission issued its one-year (fifteen-month, actually) follow-up to its September 2000 report on the marketing of violent entertainment products to children.

The original study had found a great deal to criticize in the practices of the industries within its purview - movies, music, and electronic games, all of which were marketing adult content to young children, a surprise to absolutely no one. This follow-up praises the movie and e-game businesses for their increased (though far from perfect) restraint in vending violence to youngsters. As for the music industry...well, the FTC isn't exactly whistling a happy tune.

Concerning the new report, a few observations:

-One area in which the movie business still has a lot of room for improvement is television advertising. The study puts the studios' efforts in the best possible light, stating that "although [they] continued to advertise R-rated films on television programs popular with teens, they largely fulfilled their pledges not to advertise on programs with a youth audience share of 35 percent or greater."

But this is political spin that should embarrass even James Carville. The 35-percent pledge is a PR scam which does nothing to prevent the industry from deliberately promoting its R-rated films to millions of youngsters.

Say Tinseltown Studios is about to release a violent R-rated picture and runs ads for it on a show with an audience of twenty million, five million of whom are children. Since youngsters constitute only 25 percent of the audience for the show, it's a double win for the studio: It gets to claim, accurately enough, that it's kept its 35-percent promise, and it makes money off however many of those five million children it's enticed to see a film that's unsuitable for them.

Real-world scenarios of this type aren't hard to imagine. As the FTC acknowledges, "Many programs that are very popular with youth - especially network programs...have an under-18 audience share [below] 35 percent" - including, the report adds, each of the ten most popular shows among those ages 2-17. So much for restraint.

-OK, so the kids see the TV spots and head over to the multiplex. Do theater personnel enforce the age restrictions on admission to R-rated fare? The FTC sent teens undercover to find out. Two-thirds of unaccompanied thirteen-year-olds were denied access to R movies, but for older teens theaters were much more lenient. Overall, almost half of unaccompanied thirteen-through-sixteen-year-olds were allowed to see R films - a percentage "essentially unchanged" from the first study.

It's a lot worse at music stores, which permitted eighty-seven percent of unaccompanied thirteen-year-olds, and 90 percent of thirteen-through-sixteen-year-olds, to buy CDs or cassettes carrying explicit-content labels. "Such high percentages are not surprising," says the report, "given the recording industry's emphasis that its [non-age-based] self-regulatory system does not limit the sale of explicit-content recordings to children."

The industry's chief lobbyist, Hilary Rosen, explained to the Boston Globe that an age-based system would be "inappropriate [for] music because they're words, not pictures and words, and words are subject to multiple meanings...To have a rating system to categorize those words would be unfair to the artists whose creative expression is at stake."

What in the name of Thomas Edison is she talking about? Martin Scorsese has to work within such a system, but Marilyn Manson and Eminem shouldn't have to? As for multiple meanings, help me find them in these Eminem lines: "Touch this chainsaw, left his brains all/Dangling from his neck while his head barely hangs on."

-The bottom line, according to the FTC, is that there have been "no changes in [music-] industry [advertising-placement] practices since the [first report]. The industry...continue[s] to advertise explicit-content recordings in the most popular teen venues in all media - television, radio, print, and online."

There's no real substitute for good old corporate responsibility, but until the music business manifests some, one reform could occur at the point of purchase: Retailers could implement their own age-based ratings system simply by refusing to sell explicit-content recordings to unaccompanied youngsters.

Would that cost stores money? Maybe - but maybe not. Remember when Oprah Winfrey stopped dealing with sleazy topics? Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time, her ratings ultimately soared as a result. Stores that act in a responsible manner could benefit similarly.

-The marketing of violence persists, and it merits future FTC scrutiny, but next the agency should turn its attention to the entertainment industry's promotional practices in regard to raunchy sex-themed movies, recordings, etc. The harm graphic sexual content causes children is less obvious, but it is no less real.