Children, Entertainment, and Marketing. (How to Rate the Ratings)

By Rabkin, Rhoda | Consumers' Research Magazine, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Children, Entertainment, and Marketing. (How to Rate the Ratings)


Rabkin, Rhoda, Consumers' Research Magazine


Most American parents want to restrict children's access to entertainment glamorizing violence, sex, drug use, or vulgar language. Ideally, purveyors of "mature" entertainment would voluntarily adhere to a code of advertising ethics. Self-regulation would obviate the need for burdensome government regulation. In practice, threats of legal restriction have always played an important role in persuading "morally hazardous" industries to observe codes of conduct and to avoid aggressive marketing to young people. Specifically, self-regulation on the part of makers of entertainment products (for example, movies and comic books) has allowed Americans to shield children and adolescents from "mature" content with minimal recourse to government censorship.

This tradition may, however, be about to change. In April 2001, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act (MMAA)--a bill to prohibit the marketing of "adult-rated media," i.e., movies, music, and computer games containing violent or sexual material, to young people under the age of 17. The MMAA would empower the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the advertising of entertainment products to young people. The proposed legislation, if enacted, would inject a federal agency into decisions about the marketing of movies, music, and electronic games--and thereby potentially into decisions about what sorts of movies, music, and games are produced. Lieberman's hearings, well publicized at the time, provided a valuable forum for exposing entertainment-industry practices to public scrutiny. Even so, the expansion of the federal government's regulatory powers in the area of entertainment and culture is undesirable compared to the traditional, and still-workable, system of industry self-censorship. It is worth noting that the FTC itself, in its testimony before the House Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications in July 2001, did not seek regulatory authority over the marketing of entertainment products, and in fact argued, in view of the First Amendment protections enjoyed by these products, that industry self-regulation was the best approach.

Why Voluntary Ratings? Even in the 1930s, when America was a much more conservative country (at least in terms of popular culture) than it is today, public outrage over the emphasis on sex and crime in the movies led not to censorship by the federal government but to a system wherein Hollywood regulated itself. The movie moguls created their own Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1930, supervised first by William Hays and later, in 1934, with more seriousness, by Joseph Breen.

The so-called Hays Code presumed that movies were far more influential than books and that standards of cinematic morality consequently needed to be much stricter than those governing novels and other literature. The code forbade any mention at all of certain controversial topics, such as "illegal drug traffic," "sex perversion," "white slavery," and "miscegenation." The code did allow for the depiction of some crime and some immorality (such as adultery), but stipulated that no presentation should encourage sympathy for illegal or immoral acts.

The American film industry has a long history of self-censorship for the simple reason that offending audiences has never been in its self-interest. Business concern for the bottom line, not moral sensitivity, dictated the willingness of the film industry to regulate itself. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood seldom produced mass market movies with dignified portrayals of black Americans. Scenes of racial mixing on terms of social equality were avoided because they were known to offend white Southern audiences. By the 1940s, however, tentative efforts at more dignified portrayals could be seen, and soon the industry was censoring itself to avoid offending black Americans. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's threat of a boycott caused Walt Disney to withdraw Song of the South (1946), a partly animated musical based on the Uncle Remus stories. …

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