Entertainment Industry Ratings Disclosures and the Clear and Conspicuous Standard

By Hoy, Mariea Grubbs; Andrews, J. Craig | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Entertainment Industry Ratings Disclosures and the Clear and Conspicuous Standard


Hoy, Mariea Grubbs, Andrews, J. Craig, The Journal of Consumer Affairs


This study examined entertainment ratings disclosures against the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) Clear and Conspicuous Standard (CCS). In their investigation of marketing of violent entertainment to youth, the FTC advocated that the motion picture, music recording, and electronic games industries focus on "ensuring that the rating ... and the reasons for the rating ... are effectively and clearly communicated to parents" (p. 31). An investigation of a week of prime-time television commercials across six networks revealed that with the exception of dual modality presentation of the letter rating, ratings disclosure information is often incomplete and falls far short of meeting the FTC's CCS. We offer recommendations to the entertainment industry to address these shortcomings.

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In November 2002, nineteen-year-old Micah Zoemer was charged with theft, burglary and auto theft. Zoemer claimed he was "inspired" by the video game "Grand Theft Auto" (cnn.com, November 14, 2002).

At the request of President Clinton and Congress in 1999, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice began an investigation of the marketing practices of the motion picture, music recording, and electronic games industries (FTC 2000). Their concern, prompted by school tragedies such as Columbine, was that violent entertainment was being advertised prominently and being made easily accessible to children and teens (Grier 2001). In its initial report (FTC 2000), the Commission concluded that these entertainment industries routinely promoted products to children under 17 years old that were intended for adults (i.e., "restricted audiences"). Four subsequent reports (FTC 2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2004) and an October 2003 FTC Workshop entitled "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children" underscore the Commission's continued concern (FTC 2003).

One area of industry self-regulatory effort, strongly supported by the FTC's initial report, is to provide ratings information so that parents can make informed choices regarding their child's entertainment exposure and to increase parental awareness of the ratings (FTC 2000). Indeed, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) states that the primary role of entertainment ratings is to provide information to parents regarding content and its appropriateness for children (Valenti 2000). Furthermore, most parents want this information to guide their family's media choices (Kaiser Family Foundation [KFF] 2004).

Although the focus of the FTC reports (2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2004) is the marketing of violent entertainment to children, entertainment media may contain other content that parents may find objectionable for their children such as sexual themes, profanity, and substance use (drugs, alcohol, tobacco). Additionally, the FTC studies concentrate on ad placement in television programming that has a sizable teen audience. However, out of $3.14 billion spent on movie advertising in 2002 (Endicott 2003), $870.6 million was spent on prime-time network (Brandweek 2003). Ratings for the four major broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX) and ad-supported cable for teens during prime time are nearly identical (Downey 2001). Therefore, entertainment ad placement in prime time not only informs parents, but may help to increase the dialogue between parents and teens regarding the appropriateness of a given entertainment choice.

An important, initial step in increasing parental awareness of the rating, rating definition, and rating reasons (i.e., content warning disclosures) is the clear and conspicuous presentation of that information. Prior work on disclosures indicates that often they are not presented in a format designed to attract attention, thereby not fulfilling their stated purpose and falling quite short of the FTC's Clear and Conspicuous Standard (CCS) (Hoy and Andrews 2004; Hoy and Stankey 1993; Kolbe and Muehling 1992, 1995; Muehling and Kolbe 1998).

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