WASHINGTON — Hollywood scrambled Monday to assess whether a scathing FTC report represents mere political saber-rattling or the beginning of the end to marketing strategies aimed at getting kids interested in R-rated movies, suggestive lyrics in pop songs or mayhem-filled videogames.
As spelled out in an Federal Trade Commission report issued Monday, the cleaning up of Hollywood would require the movie, music and videogame industries to adopt codes of conduct prohibiting the marketing of violent content to kids. Among other things, that would mean a ban on advertising in media or venues 35% of whose audience is 17 and under.
The most perplexing question emerging from the FTC firestorm: If a child can see an R-rated movie when accompanied by an adult, isn’t it fair for advertising campaigns to target younger audiences?
“That is the conveniently dismissed reality of this entire equation,” said one Hollywood insider.
Wish as it might, Hollywood cannot afford to ignore the FTC report, and industryites were largely silent as they digested the bitter fruits of the 15-month FTC investigation, which concluded that the movie, music and videogame industries have undermined their own rating systems by advertising to audiences for which the content has been deemed inappropriate. During the period studied, there were no NC-17 movies in release.
No specific movies or studios were mentioned in the report, which was based on materials that the studios, record companies and vidgame producers supplied. The FTC report, overseen by Jodie Bernstein, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, cost $1 million to produce.
As soon as the report was released, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore and his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, warned that if elected, they would give the entertainment industry six months to clean up. Gore, appearing on ABC’s “Oprah,” called for an immediate “cease-fire” in marketing violent content to kids. Gore’s wife, Tipper, spearheaded an effort to get potentially offensive musical recordings labeled in the early 1980s through the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC), a point Gore made during his “Oprah” appearance. Tipper and Al Gore have distanced themselves from that issue during the campaign.
Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti spent Monday reading the report and speaking with studio execs. He is expected to unveil an industry response at Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the report.
Washington has “put everybody in a box. You’re double damned if you do, and double damned if you don’t,” one Hollywood studio exec said. “Everybody today is sitting down and reading this report and talking inside their companies and amongst themselves. Wednesday, Jack will be ready to talk realistically.”
The exec said there is no question that the industry has made mistakes when it comes to marketing violent content to young people, but that it takes such matters seriously. It’s likely that in the coming days, the entertainment industry will proffer some action-oriented response, such as the formation of a special task force.
FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky said sanctions should be imposed on violators of the proposed, new code of conduct by respective trade associations. He also suggested publication of the names of those not in compliance.
“A little sunlight can be very effective,” Pitofsky said.
While the FTC report does not recommend any legislation or regulatory action, Pitofsky said he would pursue such avenues if the entertainment industry didn’t respond to the order of the day. He said he has asked his staff to study the possibility of bringing a deceptive-advertising action.
Likewise, Gore said Monday he wouldn’t hesitate to explore legislative or regulatory remedies.
On the campaign trail Monday, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush called Gore “a hypocrite,” lambasting him for targeting Hollywood’s marketing practices while at the same time relying on industryites for campaign funds and influence.
Not dictating content
Hollywood execs remember all too well the crackdown on the tobacco industry for marketing its products to minors. Still, the entertainment industry has an unbreakable ally in the Constitution.
“Artistic freedom is a basic First Amendment right,” said Hilary Rosen, exec director of the Record Industry Assn. of America. “As an industry, we are not in the business of dictating content to our artists, but we help parents and guardians make informed choices about their purchase decisions through voluntary parental advisory labels.”
Washington powers-to-be were careful Monday to say they had no intention of violating the First Amendment by dictating content. Rather, they declared that they want to shame the industry into changing its marketing practices.
Pitofsky ticked off a barrage of statistics listed in the report, noting that 80% of the R-rated movies studied had marketing plans that included young audiences; 64% of the marketing plans “expressly” targeted kids.
Report includes a studio memo stating, “Our goal was to find the elusive teen target audience and make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film.”
Studios using television advertising gobbled up time on MTV, as well as on popular teen-focused programs such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Xena: Warrior Princess” and professional wrestling shows.
Of the 55 music recordings with explicit labels studied by the FTC, marketing plans for 27% included teenagers. For M-rated vidgames, 70% of the marketing plans targeted children under 17.
Recent polls suggest that a top issue for women voters, in particular, is children and violence; the FTC report was commissioned last year by President Clinton following the Columbine High School shooting.
Political observers say that in taking on Hollywood, Gore and Lieberman are trying to appeal to moderate voters in battleground states. Rumors circulated that Gore made his comments Monday in order to steal thunder from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“The FTC has provided a serious, objective report that is being used for political mileage,” said one Hollywood exec. “It’s too bad. I don’t think it’s fair to the report or to this industry. I’m hoping it is the industry’s intention to respond to the report, not to the politicians.”
Pitofsky acknowledged there was no direct correlation between violent content and acts of violence committed by youth. Indeed, the FTC refers to a Dept. of Justice survey showing that youth crimes were down in the 1990s over the previous decade.
Pitofsky said repeatedly that the entertainment industry has made positive steps since the FTC launched its investigation. In August, the RIAA recommended that record companies refrain from advertising via outlets for which a majority of the audience is under 17.
But in its own undercover operation, the FTC dispatched kids younger than 17 to buy M-rated vidgames and to buy tickets for R-rated movies. Efforts were successful 85% of the time, FTC reported.