On June 1, 1999, President Clinton asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to undertake a study of whether the movie, music recording, and computer and video game industries market and advertise products with violent content to youngsters. The President's request paralleled Congressional calls for such a study. The President raised two specific questions: Do the industries promote products they themselves acknowledge warrant parental caution in venues where children make up a substantial percentage of the audience? And are these advertisements intended to attract children and teenagers?
For all three segments of the entertainment industry, the answers are plainly "yes."
Although the motion picture, music recording and electronic game industries have taken steps to identify content that may not be appropriate for children, companies in those industries routinely target children under 17 as the audience for movies, music and games that their own rating or labeling systems say are inappropriate for children or warrant parental caution due to their violent content. Moreover, children under 17 frequently are able to buy tickets to R-rated movies without being accompanied by an adult and can easily purchase music recordings and electronic games that have a parental advisory label or are restricted to an older audience. The practice of pervasive and aggressive marketing of violent movies, music and electronic games to children undermines the credibility of the industries' ratings and labels. Such marketing also frustrates parents' attempts to make informed decisions about their children's exposure to violent content.
For years - over backyard fences and water coolers, on talk radio and in academic journals - parents, social scientists, criminologists, educators, policymakers, health care providers, journalists and others have struggled to understand how and why some children turn to violence. The dialogues took on new urgency with the horrifying school shooting on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado.
Scholars and observers generally have agreed that exposure to violence in entertainment media alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act and that it is not the sole, or even necessarily the most important, factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes and violence. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that it is a cause for concern. The Commission's literature review reveals that a majority of the investigations into the impact of media violence on children find that there is a high correlation between exposure to media violence and aggressive, and at times violent, behavior. In addition, a number of research efforts report that exposure to media violence is correlated with increased acceptance of violent behavior in others, as well as an exaggerated perception of the amount of violence in society.
For their part, the entertainment industries have recognized these concerns and taken steps to alert parents to violent or explicit content through self-regulatory product rating or labeling programs. Self-regulation by these industries is especially important considering the First Amendment protections that prohibit government regulation of content in most instances.
The self-regulatory programs of the motion picture, music recording and electronic game industries each address violence, as well as sexual content, language, drug use and other explicit content that may be of concern to parents. In keeping with the President's request, the Commission focused on the marketing of entertainment products designated as violent under these systems. In its analysis, the Commission accepted each industry's determination of whether a particular motion picture, music recording or electronic game contains violent content; the Commission did not examine the content itself.
The motion picture industry uses a rating board to rate virtually all movies released in the United States, requires the age-related rating to appear in advertising and makes some effort to review ads for rated movies to ensure that their content is suitable for general audiences. The music recording industry recommends the use of a general parental advisory label on music with "explicit content." The decision to place a parental advisory label on a recording is made by the artist and the music publishing company and involves no independent third-party review; nor does the industry provide for any review of marketing and advertising. In late August 2000, the recording industry trade association recommended that recording companies not advertise explicit-content labeled recordings in media outlets with a majority under-17 audience. The electronic game industry requires games to be labeled with age- and content-based rating information and requires that the rating information appear in advertising. Only the electronic game industry has adopted a rule prohibiting its marketers from targeting advertising for games to children below the age designations indicated by the rating.
The Commission carefully examined the structure of these rating and labeling systems, and studied how these self-regulatory systems work in practice. The Commission found that despite the variations in the three industries' systems, the outcome is consistent: individual companies in each industry routinely market to children the very products that have the industries' own parental warnings or ratings with age restrictions due to their violent content. Indeed, for many of these products, the Commission found evidence of marketing and media plans that expressly target children under 17. In addition, the companies' marketing and media plans showed strategies to promote and advertise their products in the media outlets most likely to reach children under 17, including those television programs ranked as the "most popular" with the under-17 age group, such as Xena: Warrior Princess, South Park and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; magazines and Internet sites with a majority or substantial (i.e., over 35 percent) under-17 audience, such as Game Pro, Seventeen and Right On!, as well as mtv.com, ubl.com and happypuppy.com; and teen hangouts, such as game rooms, pizza parlors and sporting apparel stores.
Movies. Of the 44 movies rated R for violence the Commission selected for its study, the Commission found that 35, or 80 percent, were targeted to children under 17. Marketing plans for 28 of those 44, or 64 percent, contained express statements that the film's target audience included children under 17. For example, one plan for a violent R-rated film stated, "Our goal was to find the elusive teen target audience and make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film." Though the marketing plans for the remaining seven R-rated films did not expressly identify an under-17 target audience, they led the Commission to conclude that children under 17 were targeted nonetheless. That is, the plans were either extremely similar to the plans of the films that did identify an under-17 target audience, or they detailed actions synonymous with targeting that age group, such as promoting the film in high schools or in publications with majority under-17 audiences.
Music. Of the 55 music recordings with explicit content labels the Commission selected for its study, marketing plans for 15, or 27 percent, expressly identified teenagers as part of their target audience. One such plan, for instance, stated that its "Target audience" was "Alternative/urban, rock, pop, hardcore - 12-34." The marketing documents for the remaining 40 explicit-content labeled recordings examined did not expressly state the age of the target audience, but they detailed the same methods of marketing as the plans that specifically identified teens as part of their target audience, including placing advertising in media that would reach a majority or substantial percentage of children under 17.
Games. Of the 118 electronic games with a Mature rating for violence the Commission selected for its study, 83, or 70 percent, targeted children under 17. The marketing plans for 60 of these, or 51 percent, expressly included children under 17 in their target audience. For example, one plan for a game rated Mature for its violent content described its "target audience" as "Males 12-17 - Primary Males 18-34 - Secondary." Another plan referred to the target market as "Males 17-34 due to M rating (the true target is males 12-34)." Documents for the remaining 23 games showed plans to advertise in magazines or on television shows with a majority or substantial under-17 audience. Most of the plans that targeted an under-17 audience set age 12 as the younger end of the spectrum, but a few plans for violent Mature-rated games targeted children as young as six.
Further, most retailers make little effort to restrict children's access to products with violent content. Surveys conducted for the Commission in May through July 2000 found that just over half the movie theaters admitted children ages 13 to 16 to R-rated films even when not accompanied by an adult. The Commission's surveys also indicate that unaccompanied children have various strategies to see R-rated movies when theaters refuse to sell them tickets. Additionally, the Commission's surveys showed that unaccompanied children ages 13 to 16 were able to buy both explicit content recordings and Mature-rated electronic games 85 percent of the time.
Although consumer surveys show that parents value the existing rating and labeling systems, they also show that parents' use and understanding of the systems vary. The surveys also consistently reveal high levels of parental concern about violence in the movies, music and video games their children see, listen to and play. These concerns can only be heightened by the extraordinary degree to which young people today are immersed in entertainment media, as well as by recent technological advances such as realistic and interactive video games. The survey responses indicate that parents want and welcome help in identifying which entertainment products might not be suitable for their children.
Since the President requested this study over a year ago, each of the industries reviewed has taken positive steps to address these concerns. Nevertheless, the Commission believes that all three industries should take additional action to enhance their self-regulatory efforts. The industries should:
- Establish or expand codes that prohibit target marketing to children and impose sanctions for violations. All three industries should improve the usefulness of their ratings and labels by establishing codes that prohibit marketing R-rated/M-rated/explicit-labeled products in media or venues with a substantial under-17 audience. In addition, the Commission suggests that each industry's trade associations monitor and encourage their members' compliance with these policies and impose meaningful sanctions for non-compliance.
- Increase compliance at the retail level. Restricting children's retail access to entertainment containing violent content is an essential complement to restricting the placement of advertising. This can be done by checking identification or requiring parental permission before selling tickets to R movies, and by not selling or renting products labeled "Explicit" or rated R or M, to children.
- Increase parental understanding of the ratings and labels. For parents to make informed choices about their children's entertainment, they must understand the ratings and the labels, as well as the reasons for them. That means the industries should all include the reasons for the rating or the label in advertising and product packaging and continue their efforts to educate parents - and children - about the meanings of the ratings and descriptors. Industry should also take steps to better educate parents about the ratings and labels.
The Commission emphasizes that its review and publication of this Report, and its proposals to improve self-regulation, are not designed to regulate or even influence the content of movies, music lyrics or electronic games. The First Amendment generally requires that creative decisions about content be left to artists and their distributors. Rather, the Commission believes the industries can do a better job of helping parents choose appropriate entertainment for their children by providing clear and conspicuous notification of violent content. Industry self-regulation also should support parents' decisions by prohibiting the direct sale and marketing to children of products labeled as inappropriate or warranting parental guidance due to their violent content.
Implementation of the specific suggestions outlined above would significantly improve the present self-regulatory regimes. The Report demonstrates, however, that mere publication of codes is not sufficient. Self-regulatory programs can work only if the concerned industry associations actively monitor compliance and ensure that violations have consequences. The Commission believes that continuous public oversight is also required and that Congress should continue to monitor the progress of self-regulation in this area.