Retail responsibility

Culture | As Wal-Mart is showing, it's the middlemen who can clean up the cultural marketplace

Issue: "The death of discipline?," June 26, 1999

How can cultural pollution be stopped without violating the Bill of Rights? Maybe the marketplace can be a positive force in the marketplace of ideas. It is censorship when the government prohibits something from being said or published. (Christians need to be leery of state censorship, because, as Milton pointed out, the one thing most likely to get censored is Christianity, as the public schools have shown.) But there is no censorship if a person simply decides not to buy a product. A consumer who refuses to read a blasphemous book or listen to obscene music or watch a decadent movie is not violating anyone's rights; he is just exercising his own. The problem, though, with the civil libertarian's solution-"if you don't like it, don't watch it"-is that while the individual may be able to avoid a particular degradation, he must live in a culture that is becoming increasingly corrupt. It is like breathing dirty air. Individuals might be able to protect themselves, but what protects the culture as a whole? Since the pop culture exists primarily to generate money, its values are commercial. Individual or small-group boycotts tend not to have much effect, but what if economics could be brought to bear in a more systemic way? In our economic system, the major buyers are not individuals at all, but retailers. The middlemen are the ones who buy the vast quantities of recordings, videogames, and other amusements. It is the theater owners who determine what gets on the screen and who funnel the money to Hollywood. We consumers buy what they have already bought. Two of the nation's largest retailers-and largest sellers of CDs-are refusing to stock offensive merchandise. Both Wal-Mart and Kmart have pulled the album Godsmack, by the band of the same name, from their shelves. Godsmack, by the way, is a slang term for heroin. But the group is into more than that. Sully Erna, Godsmack's vocalist and founder, proudly announces on the group's website that he is a "practicing witch of the Celtic Religion under Salem Witch Laurie Cabot, and he continues to weave the Wiccan arts and rituals into the fabric of his daily life." Mr. Erna comments, "It's been my salvation. A lot of people are confused about witchcraft; it's simply about worshipping the power of the earth, and that's it! It's a positive religion that has helped me through a lot of bad times." Godsmack's CD has been selling, hitting number 23 on Billboard's album charts, and its cut "Whatever" has been getting lots of radio play. But parents in Cleveland have been complaining about its profanity and paeans to suicide.The retailers had earlier started a policy of not carrying any recording that bears the music industry's voluntary parental-warning sticker. Recordings by Marilyn Manson are not for sale. This policy, however, encouraged offensive companies not to use the warning stickers, since the megamarts are so important for mass sales. Godsmack had no parental warning, despite its NC-17 content. That Wal-Mart and Kmart are not depending on the stickers, but are actively vetting what it is they are selling, shows that they mean business. Since they cannot get away with simply ducking the warning stickers, the music companies-including Godsmack's-have started to use them again. Wal-Mart has taken a stand on an even more important issue. The company has announced that its pharmacies will not sell the recently FDA-approved abortion pill, RU-486. Radical feminists and the abortion industry are howling, charging that the ubiquitous chain, which provides the only pharmacy in some small towns, is preventing women from exercising their right to choose. But the right to choose is Wal-Mart's. No one can be forced to buy the abortion pill, and Wal-Mart is just saying no. The company may be following the legacy of the late Sam Walton, a devout Christian who continued to teach Sunday school long after he became one of the richest men in America. But it is also unusually attentive to the bottom line. (Small-town stores that have been run out of business by Wal-Mart know that the company is a tough competitor.) Wal-Mart knows its customers. While the big department stores concentrated on upscale shoppers in the big city, Mr. Walton knew that many Americans live in small towns and have to stretch every dollar. By targeting this underserved and underrespected market, Wal-Mart has dwarfed every other merchandiser in the country. Wal-Mart knows where its Middle America customers stand on the culture wars. And while manufacturers might not be particularly responsive to customer complaints, local retailers, who have to face their customers every day, are far more sensitive to community values. To be sure, not all of the entertainment industry responds to the chastening effect of the marketplace. As WORLD has reported (April 3), R-rated movies typically earn far less than G movies, but Hollywood keeps churning them out, no matter how much money they lose. Television networks are obsessed with capturing the teenager and twenty-something market. And yet, CBS recently became the highest-rated network, even though-or rather because-their viewership "skews old." But even Hollywood may be getting a message from its middlemen. The National Association of Theater Owners has agreed to enforce the rating system. Under the industry-sponsored, voluntary rating system (which is thus not censorship), children under 17 are not supposed to get into R-rated movies unless they are accompanied by a parent. This has become such a joke that many of the worst R-rated movies-the ones about high-school sex, adolescent gross-out humor, and kill-your-classmate fantasies-are targeted directly at highschoolers, who are virtually the only ones who see them-even though, theoretically, most are not allowed in the theater. But now the ticket-takers are vowing to check IDs. Though it remains to be seen how long this lasts or how effectively it is implemented, the impact on Hollywood could be enormous. Teenagers would no longer be able to watch performers, supposedly their own age, taking off their clothes and having sex or slashing each other to bloody ribbons, unless they were accompanied by good old Mom or Dad. (As if they could stand the embarrassment!) Ten-year-olds would not be able to get into PG-13s. Gradeschool kids would have to show evidence of Parental Guidance. The only way a studio could guarantee a mass audience would be to rehabilitate the now-dreaded G, for general audiences. In fact, the respected filmmaker David Mamet, who has done his share of R-rated movies, is experimenting with films-like The Spanish Prisoner-that are exciting, stimulating, and creative, but with nary a negative element. His latest movie, The Winslow Boy, about a 19th-century family battling for its honor, is rated G (see WORLD, May 15). This is probably too much to hope for. But the model of persuading the salesmen, rather than the manufacturers, is an intriguing tactic for cleaning up the culture without censorship. It may be impossible to police the Internet, but what if the major search engines that choose which sites they link to could be persuaded not to carry pornography? People are free to write what they want, but publishers are not obligated to buy it and print it. Maybe those who manufacture entertainment for our young people could develop a sense of shame, so that their conscience would not allow them to corrupt children as they have been doing. A number of filmmakers have been saying that they would not let their children see the movies they have been making. So why are they doing this to other people's children? With the new niche marketing-and given human beings' sinful nature-there will always be a demand for perversity. If major companies act responsibly, individuals will still find ways to feed vices, but the culture, at least, can become a clean-air zone.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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