Violent material marketed to youth

Washington Post 
August 27, 2000
By Christopher Stern Staff Writer

Movie studios, record companies and video game producers are aggressively marketing violent entertainment products to children even as they label the material inappropriate for young audiences, a yearlong Federal Trade Commission investigation has found.

A draft report on the investigation shows that movie studios advertised violent R-rated movies during television shows with predominantly teen audiences. It also shows that producers of violent video games touted products suitable for "mature" users in magazines aimed at young teens, according to sources who are familiar with the report's findings.

Investigators reviewed thousands of pages of internal documents from the entertainment industry, including market research showing that violent material is an effective lure to get young people to buy movie tickets, music and video games, sources say.

The FTC report, slated to be released next month, is likely to reignite the debate between Hollywood and Washington over the influence of media on the violent behavior of the nation's youth. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is planning to conduct a hearing next month on the still-confidential FTC report.

Vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a frequent Hollywood critic, has expressed interest in testifying. The senator will make a final decision about testifying once he sees the results of the FTC investigation, according to Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein. However, an appearance could put Lieberman in a sensitive position because many of the high-dollar Democratic contributors include movie studio and other entertainment executives.

President Clinton ordered the FTC and the Justice Department to conduct the investigation last year in the wake of a series of school shootings, including the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which two students shot and killed 13 people and wounded others before taking their own lives. Clinton's directive came after the Senate approved a similar proposal authored by McCain, Lieberman and others.

FTC spokesman Eric London refused to comment on the substance of the report prior to its public release. FTC commissioners are still reviewing the staff conclusions, which are subject to change.

In addition to surveying internal marketing documents, FTC investigators also found that the content codes voluntarily administered by the film, music and video game industries are poorly enforced.

FTC investigators found that underage children were frequently sold tickets to R-rated movies even though the Motion Picture Association of America's own code bans youths under 17 from entering such movies unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

A poll conducted by the FTC found that parents want more information than is currently provided by the MPAA's rating code. The code makes age-based viewing recommendations but provides little information about the actual content of the movie, according to sources familiar with the draft report.

MPAA chief executive Jack Valenti said he could not comment on the substance of a report that he has not seen. However, he insisted that the movie industry is "the most responsible of all spectator entertainment."

Valenti said the reasoning behind each movie's age-based rating is provided to newspaper, television and radio critics. In addition, Valenti's organization maintains a Web site, mpaa.org/movieratings/, which refers users to a database that includes details on each particular movie's rating.

"We give all the information in the world," Valenti said. Valenti also noted that an annual poll of parents about the movie ratings shows that most parents find it to be a useful tool when making decisions about which movies to allow their children to see.

Like Valenti, Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a group that represents video game producers, declined to comment on the report until it is released. Lowenstein said there is a misconception that the bulk of the video game market is made up of children. About 62 percent of video game enthusiasts are over 18, according to Lowenstein. In addition, Lowenstein said that video game companies have modified their advertising practices in the last year to steer violent ads away from children.

Recording Industry Association of America President Hilary Rosen was unavailable for comment, according to her staff.

The FTC conducted a similar probe of the tobacco industry that looked into charges that cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds's "Joe Camel" cartoon character was targeted at teenagers in an effort to get them to begin smoking. RJR dropped the use of the Joe Camel cartoon in 1997, but not before seven tobacco company executives dramatically testified at a hearing that they did not market their products to underage smokers.

While it is illegal to sell cigarettes to minors, no such legal restrictions apply to the marketing of violent programming to children.

McCain expects high-level entertainment industry executives to testify about the FTC findings at his hearing, according to a Commerce Committee staff member. Industry executives have sometimes been reluctant to show up at hearings, where movies, music lyrics and video games are often blamed for societal ills ranging from schoolyard violence to sexual promiscuity. But the Commerce Committee staffer said that subpoenas have been discussed as an option if industry executives balk at making an appearance.