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Heat on Hollywood - December 10, 2001

James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Approximately one year ago, the Federal Trade Commission issued a troubling report. The Commission had evidence that the film, music and computer game businesses were deliberately marketing to young children. This was being done despite instances in which products had adult ratings.

Part of the FTC's evidence consisted of Hollywood's own internal documents. The Commission further found that movie houses were routinely allowing under-aged youngsters to view films that were rated for older children, and retailers were selling violent games and music CDs to kids.

Another FTC study on the marketing habits of Hollywood has just come out. It was requested by members of Congress as a follow-up to the report of a year ago. This report, though, has a mixture of good news and bad news.

Some progress has been made because of the pressure generated by the previous report. In this latest review, the Commission praises film and computer game businesses for reductions in the marketing of R-rated movies and M-rated games to kids.

But movie studios continue to advertise R-rated films on television at times when teens are watching. And the computer game industry, although it made progress in providing accurate rating information, still advertises violent M-rated games in media venues that are popular with teens. In addition, it was found that roughly half of under-age youth are able to buy tickets to R-rated movies.

But the strongest criticism leveled by the Commission was reserved for the music industry. According to the report, the music industry has done little, if anything, to curb the marketing of inappropriate music CDs to kids or to provide parents with better information about product subject matter.

Record companies still advertise CDs labeled with the words "Parental Advisory" in teen-oriented magazines and on internet sites and radio.

Unlike rating programs for other products, record companies do not consider the age of the listener in their approach. Instead, they wave the banner of "creative expression" and claim such consideration would be unfair to artists.

The FTC repeated an undercover shopper survey to find out whether retailers were honoring the labels that restrict sales to minors. The Commission found that almost 90 percent of music stores sold explicit-content labeled CDs to under-age children.

Although Hollywood's decision makers have started taking positive steps to address the concerns of unsuitable marketing, much more remains to be done.

The most effective way for the public to get better products and more responsible advertising out of Hollywood is to utilize the free marketplace. This would protect the First Amendment and, at the same time, promote genuine change.

Remember when an undaunted Charlton Heston read the lyrics of the rap tune "Cop Killer" at a shareholders meeting of the then Time-Warner conglomerate? Ice T was dropped from the company's record label. Public oversight is a powerful force in persuading an industry to honor obligations to society.

It is important to evaluate the progress of the entertainment industry as it carries out its self-regulatory responsibilities. Congress should continue to have the FTC monitor the entertainment business in this regard. The potential hammer of government intervention that hangs over the heads of tinseltown execs seems to have a favorable effect.

Hollywood businesses can certainly do a better job of helping parents to choose appropriate entertainment for their children. They can provide clear and conspicuous notification of inappropriate content. They can help educate parents about the significance of ratings and labels. And they can help identify music products that correspond with the consumer's age demands.

Hollywood moguls must be convinced that it is in their best interest to cease marketing adult products to children. Proprietors must do a better job of checking IDs prior to ticket or product sales. Trade associations can assist by monitoring members' compliance with policies and imposing meaningful sanctions for non-compliance.

The heat must be kept on the various branches of the entertainment industry for everyone's benefit. If not, members may find themselves subjected to the same treatment as the tobacco companies, with trial lawyers breathing down their necks, politicians sniffing for settlement dough and the public paying the tab.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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