Peddling violent movies to kids with TV ads

Debate reaching fever pitch in U.S. seeps into Canada

Toronto Star
September 22, 2000
By Betsy Powell, Entertainment Reporter

Sandwiched in with commercials for pizza and pimple cream during CBC-TV's teen show Jonovision on Tuesday was a spot for today's theatrical re-release of The Exorcist, "the scariest movie you've never seen".

In the '70s, The Exorcist was restricted. Now it's rated AA (adult accompaniment with warnings), which is why CBC concluded it was suitable to air on a show with a target audience aged 13 to 18, network officials said.

But the confusion that greeted queries about the ad -- at first, a CBC spokesperson said it was a mistake to run it during a program aimed at teens -- underlines a growing nervousness in the entertainment industry.

The marketing of violent entertainment to a youthful audience is a debate that's reaching fever pitch in the U.S. presidential race and seeping into Canada, hardly surprising considering that Canadians are inundated with American entertainment "product".

Earlier this month in Washington, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a blistering report accusing the entertainment industry of deceitfully doing an end-run around its own parental rating systems by peddling violent movies, music and video games to children.

According to the FTC report, Hollywood routinely advertises R-rated movies in media outlets most likely to reach children under 17, including TV shows (South Park, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Zena: Warrior Princess), magazines (Game Pro, Teen People, Seventeen) and on web sites with high teen traffic (mtv.com and happypuppy.com).

The FTC, reporting after a year-long study, looked at promotional plans submitted by the studios, outlining where TV, radio, print and Internet advertising was placed.

Yet it's ironic that, as Canadian media report on the debate raging south of the border, a similar, quieter one is taking place here.

Consider:

  1. Last week, Canada's justice ministers agreed to support a national strategy to counter child and youth-targeted violence in the media.
  2. In July, British Columbia announced its intention to classify video games and home videos and to regulate their sale and rental to youths.
  3. Last week Ontario Consumer Affairs Minister Bob Runciman met with Bob Warren, head of the province's Film Review Board, to discuss the options relating to video game classification.
  4.  The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) is planning to sit down this fall with retailers with an eye to developing an industry-wide policy about selling CDs with Explicit Warning stickers to children.
  5. Lawmakers and parents continue to grapple with children's exposure to the unregulated Internet.

Many Canadian politicians and industry watchers believe the FTC is driving home a point that's as relevant to Canada as it is to the United States.

"Our kids watch American television every day. They buy American toys; they watch American music videos, play American video games. There's no border at all when it comes to media," says Cathy Wing of the Ottawa-based Media Awareness Network.

A Ryerson University study released this week says Toronto teenagers tend to tune into The Simpsons, South Park or Friends while avoiding kid-friendly Canadian shows.

"We have no jurisdiction over the American channels, that's our problem," says Ron Cohen, national chair of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

Yet government regulators do have jurisdiction over the Canadian channels that air American shows, said Melanie Cishecki, communications manager at Toronto-based watchdog MediaWatch. "We still have a way to go," she said.

When it comes to Hollywood, the studios, including Paramount, Fox, Disney and Columbia, all have Canadian operations with distribution and marketing organizations.

They may argue their marketing campaigns differ, but B.C. Attorney General Andrew Petter doesn't buy that. "If they're marketing to American children, they're marketing to Canadian kids," he said in a phone interview from the west coast.

Petter, who tabled the issue of youth-targeted violence at the justice ministers' meeting in Iqualuit, Nunavut, said the FTC report undercuts the argument that the industry can be self-policing.

"The industry clearly has a strong profit motive and a desire to market these products and that's understandable," he said. "But it's a bit much to expect therefore that the industry also be able to provide good and consistent and reliable consumer information."

Rather, the FTC released an internal memorandum, apparently from a movie studio, about an R-rated film that said its promotional "goal was to find the elusive teen target audience and make sure everyone between the ages of 12 to 18 was exposed to the film".

Another memorandum described how flyers and posters about an R-rated movie were distributed in Kansas City to groups such as the Campfire Boys and Girls.

In Ontario, an R-rating restricts movie access to age 18 and over. In the U.S., those under 17 can go to R-rated movies, but only when accompanied by an adult.

Because of that, Warren says, Hollywood can argue "why shouldn't we market to them? It's a strange situation."

Next week in Washington, high-ranking executives from each of the seven major studios, plus DreamWorks, will respond to the FTC report before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Already, Walt Disney Co. has announced changes to its marketing practices, including a prohibition against U.S. theatre owners showing trailers for R-rated films before movies released under the Walt Disney label, which does not release R-rated films. (Disney-owned Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures and Miramax do, however.)

And it's not just made-in-America marketing practices exposing young people to violent entertainment, which critics say is desensitizing and may contribute to youth violence.

In Ontario, for instance, "It's quite possible to have a trailer for a very violent restricted movie -- if the trailer doesn't show any violence -- before a lower-rated movie, say PG (Parental Guidance)," said Warren.

What Magazine, a Winnipeg-based publication distributed in high schools to some 250,000 students aged 13 to 18 across the country, runs ads for violent video games, but not movie studio advertising for R-rated movies.

What's the difference? "It's mainly because they (students) can go anywhere and get a video game, where you would think a restricted movie requires ID," said publisher Nancy Moore.

Canadian broadcasters are also supposed to stick to a "watershed" hour when "inappropriate" programming for children is not supposed to be shown before 9 p.m., said Wing, a media and Internet specialist with the non-profit Media Awareness Network.

"As far as I know it doesn't cover advertising because we see advertising for restricted films before the watershed hour all the time."

There's room for improvement, say industry representatives, but overall Canada is better than the U.S. at protecting youth from entertainment violence.

"We tend to have more the full-force of law and regulation behind things, so if people don't behave at least we can do something about it. That's not the way it is in the States," said Warren.

And does anyone really believe the entertainment industry's violence-laden products can be contained at this late stage?

"If one views this as a regulatory problem that government can somehow surround and deal with in a comprehensive basis, then one's going to fail," said Petter.

"It's got more to do with consciousness raising and education and trying as much as you can to give good, reliable consumer information."