Reviews > Culture

More than marketing

Culture | The problem isn't just the ads that target children, it's the products

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

Hollywood is finding itself threatened by the Joe Camel syndrome. Just as the tobacco industry got in big trouble when it was found to be marketing its products to young people, the entertainment industry is coming under fire for its practice of advertising R-rated products to children who, theoretically, are not old enough to buy them.

A study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission found hard evidence that moviemakers, record labels, and video game companies are intentionally targeting children as customers for material that, by their own rating systems, is too violent or sexual for children (WORLD, Sept. 23).

Not only are R-rated movies advertised heavily on MTV, most of whose viewers are under 18, but PG-13 movies are advertised on the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the broadcasting networks' Saturday morning cartoons, nearly all of whose viewers are under 11.

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The FTC report cited documentary evidence that this underage marketing was intentional. It cited marketing plans for "explicit"-labeled CDs that lay out strategies for reaching children under 12. Manufacturers of "first-person shooter" video games-rated M for "mature audiences" over 17-admit in their own literature that their market consists of boys under 17.

Without naming names, the report also gave specific examples. It told of a movie studio that used 8- to 10-year-olds to be part of a test-marketing focus group. The report cited an ad campaign for an R-rated movie that included giving out free passes to high schools. Another strategy was to distribute fliers about an R-rated movie to various "youth groups," including the Camp Fire Girls.

The FTC gathered empirical data as well, sending hundreds of young people ages 13-16 into the marketplace to test the various rating systems. Forty-six percent were able to buy R-rated movie tickets. Eighty-five percent were able to buy "explicit" music and M-rated video games.

The outrage sparked by the report is coming not just from the usual culture warriors. Commissioned by President Clinton after the Columbine killings, the FTC report is raising the ire of both liberals and conservatives. Congress held bipartisan hearings on the subject, chaired by Republican Senator John McCain, with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman weighing in on one of his long-time causes. Both presidential candidates are scoring points on the issue.

In fact, Democratic candidate Al Gore is proposing the toughest measures. He will give the industry six months to clean up its act, he says, and if there are still problems he will apply federal laws against deceptive advertising-such as were used against Joe Camel-to put a stop to the marketing of R-rated material to children.

Such a use of government power comes close to actual censorship, a violation of the First Amendment that conservatives could never get away with, but which fits into the liberal paradigm of the government solving all social problems. Mr. Gore's proposal rings somewhat hollow, given his financial backing from the entertainment industry. According to the Los Angeles Times, when the FTC study was first commissioned, Mr. Gore made a point of assuring his Hollywood donors that he had nothing to do with it.

There is a deeper problem, though. As Lynne Cheney-long-time cultural critic and wife of the GOP vice-presidential nominee-said, testifying at the Senate hearing, "There is a problem with what they are marketing, no matter how they are marketing it."

It is not just that the advertising is directed to young people. The products are directed to young people.

A whole string of R-rated movies has been about high-school kids losing their virginity. What other audience would there be for a movie like this than high-school kids? Who would even think of buying "explicit" records-say, Eminem rapping about raping and killing his mother-except for teenagers? Do the studios think soccer moms buy these CDs? Who are the "Mature audiences" for first-person shooter video games? Senior citizens in nursing homes?

It would do little for the morals of America's adolescents for MTV to stop advertising R-rated movies, while the network features series such as Undressed, a soap opera about the sex lives of teenagers.

As Mr. Gore promises his Hollywood patrons, it is indeed possible to ban the advertising of negative material to children, while not infringing on the "creative freedom" of the entertainment industry. Focusing on marketing techniques gives the appearance of addressing the problem, but it will not stop the corruption of our children by the pop culture any more than banning Joe Camel stopped teenage smoking.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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