The Influence of Violent Entertainment Material on Kids: What is to be Done?

Date:
By: 
Robert Pitofsky, Former Chairman

Two weeks ago, President Clinton asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to conduct a study to determine whether firms in the movie, music recording and video game industries are marketing violent materials to young people.(2)

The President's request came in response to concerns about the instances of senseless violence that have become a plague to an entire generation of young people. The school shootings in Littleton, Jonesboro, West Paducah and Conyers have brought this issue to the surface of public consciousness. Beyond those dramatic episodes, we are aware of the grim statistics that seven youngsters are gunned down every day in the United States.(3) The evidence is overwhelming that young people, to express frustration and resolve differences, are turning to violence, and other young people are the victims. What is to be done?

I want to thank both Attorney General Christine Gregoire, your incoming NAAG president, and Attorney General Mike Moore, your outgoing president, for this opportunity to speak to you today and to share views on this immensely important issue.

I know that this group, ahead of most others, has been aware of issues raised by the wave of violence among young people and is already active in addressing those problems. I know of General Moore's summit meeting last month on youth violence and school safety, and I have talked to General Gregoire about her plans to continue the initiative.

We look forward to opportunities to work cooperatively with this group in pursuing our own study. After all, if there is one thing that we have learned in the last decade, it is that coordinated state/federal enforcement is effective. We have worked together on old-fashioned pyramid schemes and snake oil sales to the newest Internet frauds, and have joined forces in over 40 law enforcement sweeps resulting in nearly 1,200 actions - and that is just since 1995 when I came to the Commission. I am confident that we can join forces effectively on this challenging issue as well.

In her book Mayhem, Sissela Bok asks the critical question:

Is it alarmist or merely sensible to ask what happens to the souls of children nurtured, as in no past society, on images of rape, torture, bombings and massacre that are channeled into their homes from infancy?(4)

I believe the answer is that by desensitizing young people to the consequences of violence, by making violence seem commonplace and ordinary, by a cumulative celebration of the effectiveness of violence, we make violent behavior more likely to occur. I acknowledge, as one must, that violent movies, video games and recording lyrics are not the only reason for a culture of violence among young people. While the issue is not entirely free from doubt, many studies show that there is a causal connection between entertainment content and behavior.(5)

That was why I welcomed the legislation, sponsored by Senators Hatch, Brownback and Leiberman, that calls on the FTC and the Justice Department to review these issues,(6) and why I was particularly pleased when President Clinton asked us to begin this effort, even in advance of legislation.

As an aside, some may think of the FTC as only an economic law enforcement agency and may see us as an unlikely choice to study the marketing of violent entertainment material to young people. In fact, the assignment makes good sense and fits a core concept of the FTC's role.

When the FTC was established in 1914, President Wilson envisioned the agency as "an indispensable instrument of information and publicity, as a clearinghouse for the facts by which both the public mind and the managers of great business undertaking should be guided."(7) The idea was that the agency would work with the business community on emerging issues of national interest and report findings to Congress and to the public to assist informed discussion. Congress acted to codify that vision by giving the FTC specific authority to conduct such studies and collect information.(8)

In its early years, the Commission completed many useful studies, including one that led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.(9) After World War II, the Commission conducted path breaking studies on industrial concentration that led to the amendment of controlling merger statutes.(10) And it was one of the earliest investigators of the health hazards of cigarettes - a subject that you know more than a little about - which led to mandated health warnings.(11)

We have tried to restore that tradition in recent years. Currently, we have studies and investigations going forward on possible invasions of privacy on the Internet,(12) possible health warnings for cigars,(13) and the marketing of alcohol products.(14) Our goal is to establish our credentials as an agency capable of conducting a thorough and objective investigation of important business and marketing issues.

Now, the FTC and the DOJ have been asked to conduct a study focusing on the marketing of entertainment materials in movies, video games and recordings, and examine the extent to which such materials are targeted for or available to young people.(15)

Because there has been so much speculation about the scope and possible effects (intended and unintended) of this project, let me start in an unusual way - by describing what this project will not do.

First and foremost, we will not judge the content of these products. We understand that this is an area that impacts on freedom of expression and that there are appropriate limits on government action imposed by the First Amendment. We will not be the modern embodiment of thought police - a consequence that follows, well intended or not, when the government tries to define "gratuitous violence." Specifically, our goal is not to deny young people any opportunity to see King Lear or Saving Private Ryan, or to hear socially relevant rap lyrics, because they contain violent material.

Second, we are not embarking on a campaign of law enforcement. Our role is to study issues and report our findings to the President, Congress and the American public. We expect that our end product will be a report, not a cluster of charges alleging law violations.

Finally, our goal is to work with - not against - the entertainment industry. For example, although we have the power to compel the production of information that we need to complete the study,(16) we have a distinct preference for voluntary production. We intend to use that approach to the greatest extent possible. In the end however, our responsibility is to produce a full, complete record on which to base judgments, and we will use compulsory process if we find it necessary.

What will the study examine? At least at the outset, we intend to focus on industry self-regulation and on industry marketing practices. It is important to recognize that each of these entertainment segments - movies, music recordings and video games - already has a rating system (17) designed to provide parents and others with guidance about which products are inappropriate for children. Precisely because there are such important First Amendment considerations in addressing these problems, an important focus will be on self-regulation. We plan to examine the rating systems in each of these entertainment segments and report in some detail about their content, how they operate, whether they are effective. We also will look at marketing plans and consider whether the marketing and advertising of these products is either inconsistent with the ratings or designed to undermine them. This will help us answer the President's basic question: are age-restricted products being advertised or promoted to audiences composed primarily of young people?

Beyond rating systems and any ethical codes, we will examine whether current self-regulatory restrictions are effective in ensuring that products rated as inappropriate for children are not sold to children. Our report will describe what manufacturers, distributors and retailers are doing to encourage compliance with the industry's own standards - and whether more can be done? To illustrate the point, I remind you of the example cited by Senator Hatch involving a 12 year-old boy who recently bought a series of age-restricted video games; his comment after his shopping trip: "I could have bought anything in the store, if I'd had enough money."(18)

Your work on tobacco sales to minors has taught all of us how difficult it is to implement age oriented purchasing restrictions at the retail level. Difficult yes: impossible no. Should we really assume, if we all put our minds to it, that this problem is insoluable? We will assess what the entertainment industry and its distributors have done, and can do, to address this issue.

We also want to look at the advertising and promotion of these various products. Some have suggested that the advertising is more violent than the ratings for the games themselves. You may recall the examples President Clinton used of ads for video games that urged purchasers to "get in touch with your gun-toting cold-blooded murdering side." Or "kill your friends, guilt-free."(19) We recognize that the most of video games - - and most movies and records - - are non-violent. But there is reason to believe that some are not, and that some marketing is designed to take advantage of the attractiveness of violent content. Do all concerned parties have to stand idly by, in the name of freedom of expression, and do nothing when that kind of promotion is pursued by an irresponsible few?

As you can see, our initial and primary focus is on industry self-regulation - what it is, how it works, and perhaps how it can be improved. Some will argue that self-regulation is a cop-out, and it will never cover the less responsible elements in any sector of the industry. I don't believe that is true. We have seen industry self-regulation work in industries as divergent in economic terms as the advertising industry and the funeral directors.(20) It is essential, however, that responsible elements in an industry sector come to the conclusion that it is in the interest of all to ensure full compliance with real self-regulatory programs. It is also essential that there be some device within a self-regulatory scheme to ensure that firms abide by their commitments.

As you can imagine, a number of questions have been raised about this initiative. I'd like to use this opportunity to try to answer some of them.

To those who argue that because there are many causes for the increased culture of violence among young people in our country, it is unfair to focus attention on just one, my answer is: that is an argument for doing nothing. In requesting this study, President Clinton and Congress have been very clear that they view it as one of many efforts to address a very complex issue.

To those who argue that no matter what is said now, the ultimate effect will be some sort of government censorship and intrusion on First Amendment rights, my answer is: it ain't necessarily so. There is no intention, directly or indirectly, to control content. I believe the President said it best when he said, "One can value the First Amendment right to free speech and at the same time care for and act with restraint."(21)

Finally, to those who argue that this study can have no real effect unless it does lead to government action, my answer is: I don't think so. This study will be meaningful in a number of ways and to a number of audiences. It will inform our decision makers - the Congress and the President - on the status quo. It will provide a basis for the industry to improve its self-regulatory efforts in an area of serious concern. And it will provide information to parents, who are trying to do the right thing for their kids.

Let me close on an upbeat note. In the last few weeks I have had meetings and conversations with responsible industry leaders, and my impression is that they recognize the concerns that we have discussed today and are eager to address them effectively. Some new initiatives already have been launched and other promising proposals are in the works. For example, on June 8, 1999, President Clinton announced that the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) had adopted a policy under which movie theatre owners will require photo identification from young people seeking admission to "R"-rated films. NATO members represent 65% of the motion picture screens in the United States.(22)

To the extent that changes for the better do occur, you can be sure they will be included in our report.

Our goal in this project is to work with the movie, music and video game industries, with consumer, parent and public interest groups, and with groups like NAAG, to find common ground in addressing what most reasonable people would agree is a serious problem in this country. We know that NAAG, among many other groups, is ready and qualified to join in this national dialogue.

1. The views expressed are those of Chairman Pitofsky, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commission or other Commissioners.

2. Letter from William J. Clinton, President, to Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States, and Robert Pitofsky, Chairman, Federal Trade Commission (June 1, 1999).

3. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, 2,836 children and teenagers were murdered with guns in 1996. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics (1998).

4. Sissela Bok, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment (Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1998) [hereinafter BOK, MAYHEM] at 3.

5. There appears to be significant evidence that one cause (among many) is the violent material to which young people are exposed.See, e.g., National Television Violence Study (Seawell, Margaret, ed.) (results from this three-year study, the largest study of media content ever undertaken, indicate that viewing television violence is a factor in learning of aggression and has a negative impact on children); UCLA Center for Communication Policy, the UCLA Television Violence Monitoring Report (1995) at 10 (the evidence "strongly suggests that there is a link between violence on television and that in the real world"); John P. Murray, The Impact of Televised Violence, 22 Hofstra L. Rev. 809, 825 (1994) ("extensive, cumulative evidence of potential harmful effects" caused by televised violence).See also Madeline Levine, Viewing Violence: How Media Violence Affects Your Child's and Adolescent's Development (1996); Brandon S. Centerwall, Television and Violence: The Scale of the Problem and Where to Go From Here, 267 Journal of the American Medical Ass'n 3059, (June 10, 1992). While much of the research has looked at the effects of the televised depiction of violence, more recent attention has been placed on other media. See, e.g., D. Zillmann, Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Gratuitous Media Violence on Provoked and Unprovoked Hostile Behavior 29(1) Journal of Applied Social Psychology,145 (1999). Sissela Bok, in her 1998 book, notes that "there is near-unanimity by now among investigators that exposure to media violence contributes to lowering barriers to aggression among some viewers." BOK, MAYHEM, supra note 4, at 84.

6. Amendment 329 by Senator Brownback et. al. to the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999. S. 254, 106th Cong., 1st. Sess, 145 Cong. Rec. 5171 (May 12, 1998). Section 511 directs the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to jointly conduct the study.

7. President Woodrow Wilson, Special Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on Additional Legislation for the Control of Trusts and Monopolies (January 20, 1914) reprinted in The New Democracy:Presidential Messages, Addresses and Other Papers (1913-1917) at 85 (Ray S. Baker & William E. Dodd eds., Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1970).

8. Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 46(b) (1994). Section 46(f) of the FTC Act similarly provides that "the Commission shall also have power . . . to make public from time to time such portions of the information obtained by it hereunder as are in the public interest; and to make annual and special reports to the Congress . . . ."

9. The Utility Corporations Report (final report published in 1935), studying the practices of electric and gas public utility corporations, led to the passage of four separate pieces of legislation including the Public Utility Holding Company Act, 15 U.S.C. § 79, and the Securities Act, 15 U.S.C. § 77, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission.

10. Numerous FTC reports issued during the 1940s documented the concentration of certain industries. The reports argued that a "loop hole" in Section 7 of the Clayton Act, permitting a company to acquire the assets of another company, allowed industry members to merge without concerning themselves with the consequences of the antitrust laws. These reports helped lead to the passage of the Celler-Kefauver Amendment to the Clayton Act. See, e.g., FTC, The Merger Movement, (1948); FTC, Report on the Present Trend of Mergers and Acquisitions (1947); FTC, Report on the Divergence Between Plant and Company Concentration (1947).

11. The FTC's 1964 Staff Report on Cigarette Advertising and Output, a study of the role played by the cigarette industry in the U.S. economy and an examination of the claims used in advertising to promote the industry's products, was a precursor to the groundbreaking Trade Regulation Rule for the Prevention of Unfair or Deceptive Advertising and Labeling of Cigarettes in Relation to the Health Hazards of Smoking in 1964, which led to the first Congressional legislation on cigarette health warnings.

12. In June 1998, the Commission released Privacy Online: A Report to Congress, a comprehensive study of the effectiveness of self-regulatory efforts to protect consumer privacy on the World Wide Web. The report, which announced the results of the Commission's survey of 1,400 web sites' information practices, was the impetus for joint industry and consumer group efforts to enact federal legislation to protect children's privacy by giving parents the tools to control the online collection and use of information about their kids. Perhaps more significantly, it has been the impetus for a sustained effort by major information industry members to ensure that commercial web sites post privacy policies, an effort which has shown significant progress in the last twelve months.

13. See FTC News Release, FTC Requires Cigar Companies to Supply Data on Cigar Sales and Advertising Expenditures (February 9, 1998), available online: /opa/1998/9802/cigpress.4.shtm.

14. See FTC News Release, Alcohol Companies to Supply Data on their Self-Regulatory Activities to FTC (August 6, 1998), available online: /opa/1998/9808/alcohol.shtm.

15. See supra note 2.

16. See supra note 8.

17. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has had a five-tiered rating system in place for fifteen years. The MPAA's Ratings Board reviews submitted films and assigns one of the following ratings:

G General Audiences: All ages admitted,

PG Parental Guidance Suggested: Some material may not be suitable for children,

PG-13 Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13,

R Restricted: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian, or

NC-17 No one 17 and under admitted.

Information about MPAA's rating system is available online at: www.mpaa.org/movieratings.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), reviews and assigns ratings for personal computer/video games, including:

E Everyone: content suitable for persons ages six and older,

T Teen: content suitable for persons 13 and older,

M Mature: content suitable for persons age 17 and older, or

AO Adults Only: content suitable only for adults.

A full description of these ratings appears at www.esrb.org/rating.html.

The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), whose members accounted for 85% of the $6.3 billion in entertainment software sold in the U.S. in 1998, also has an "Advertising Code of Conduct." This code requires its members to place the ESRB rating on their products and prohibits targeting ads for games to consumers for whom the game is not rated as appropriate. Further information about IDSA is available online at: www.idsa.com.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has a Voluntary Parental Advisory Program. Its "Parental Advisory Label," introduced in 1990, is intended to inform parents that recordings with the logo contain strong language or depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse. The decision to label a particular sound recording is made by each recording company. A full description of the program is available online at: www.riaa.com.

18. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Statement before Senate Commerce Committee (May 4, 1999), available online at:www.senate.gov/~hatch/littleton.html.

19. President Clinton, Remarks Announcing a Study on Youth Violence and Media Marketing, 35 Weekly Comp. Pres. Doc.1009 (June 1, 1999).

20. The National Advertising Division ("NAD"), the advertising industry's self-regulatory program, is headed by a former member of the New York Attorney General's office and handles almost 100 advertising cases a year. The Funeral Rule Offenders Program ("FROP") is a unique alternative to traditional Commission enforcement methods. When the FTC finds a funeral home that is not in compliance with its Funeral Rule, we allow the home to participate in FROP as an alternative to FTC enforcement. Program participants make a voluntary payment to the Treasury and participate in a compliance program. Since the program was adopted, the rate of compliance with the Funeral Rule has improved substantially. For more information on FROP, see /opa/1996/9601/funera.shtm; for more information on NAD, see http://www.bbb.org/advertising/index.html.

21. See supra note 19.

22. The announcement is online at: www.whitehouse.gov/WH/Work/060899.html.