FTC blasts kids marketing

Welcome to the 21st Century-now go home.

There are some big changes coming in the way entertainment companies market their wares to the public, particularly the public under age 17. The U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission filed a...
November 1, 2000

Welcome to the 21st Century-now go home.

There are some big changes coming in the way entertainment companies market their wares to the public, particularly the public under age 17. The U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission filed a report to the U.S. Senate on September 13 that has sent shock waves through Hollywood, and all who do business there.

The FTC’s report was based on a 15-month study of motion picture, music and video game marketing practices that revealed the industry’s dirty little secret: Targeting kids under 17 in media plans and advertising strategies for product clearly labeled inappropriate for children.

‘Do the motion picture, music recording and electronic game industries promote products they themselves acknowledge warrant parental caution in venues where children make up a substantial percentage of the audience?’ asked Robert Pitofsky, chairman of the FTC, in a statement read before the Senate. ‘And are these advertisements intended to attract children and teenagers? The Commission has found that the answers to both questions are plainly yes.’

Pitofsky’s report has sent a wakeup call to the entertainment marketing community. As Stacey Snider, a surprised Universal Pictures president, told the Senate committee: ‘You’ve got my full attention.’

‘Did the studios know this was coming? Yes, they absolutely did. It wasn’t a surprise report or the tone of it a surprise,’ says Ira Meyer, president of EPM Communications, publisher of Entertainment Marketing Letter and Youth Markets Alert. ‘Hollywood is now asking `OK, I know we need to do something, but realistically what do we do?’ There are some things we can do relatively simply, and there are a lot that are more difficult.’ Meyer asks, ‘When you’re trying to reach a general audience that kids may, in fact, tune into-is that different from targeting kids directly? Is that going to satisfy the FCC or parent groups or anybody else? These are difficult issues that are only beginning to be explored now.’

The Federal Trade Commission’s report took a particularly hard look at the motion picture industry, pointing out specific examples of problematic marketing practices.

As outlined in the report: ‘The Commission found numerous examples when trailers approved for `all audiences’ contained material the Advertising Administration’s Handbook says might `engender criticism by parents.’ For example, the `all audience’ trailer for I Know What You Did Last Summer contained verbal references to mutilations (references to decapitation and to a person being `gutted by a hook’) and drug use. A trailer for Scream 2 contained a verbal reference to mutilation (that a woman had been stabbed seven times) and several visual depictions of violence against women (women being pursued by a masked, knife-wielding killer).’

Noting that MTV’s core demographic is ages 12 to 24, the Commission found the music channel to be a prime advertising outlet for R-rated films. More disturbing, however, was the Commission’s findings on PG-13 rated films. Of nine PG-13 films studied for this report, seven targeted kids under 11 and advertised heavily on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

One marketing plan for a PG-13 movie targeting six- to 11-year-olds showed that Xena: Warrior Princess-used in advertising for virtually every R-rated movie the Commission examined-was popular with all children ages six to 11, as well as with males 12 to 17. As the report states, ‘MTV is also popular with children six to 11. Thus, although the Commission found little indication that R-rated films were deliberately being marketed to children under 12, those young children nevertheless had substantial exposure to the television advertising for R-rated films as well.’

The exhibiting of trailers in movie theaters also came under fire in the FTC report, which noted that the National Association of Theater Owners passed a self-regulating resolution in 1989 that ‘all trailers shown with G-rated films should be compatible therewith.’ Films rated PG or higher could exhibit trailers for films within one rating of the feature presentation. This allows R-rated films to be advertised with PG-13 rated films. The Commission found that ‘the studios routinely seek to place trailers (both attached and unattached) for R-rated movies at PG-13 rated features, including PG-13 features the Commission determined were marketed to children 11 and younger.

‘In addition, the theaters appear to grant exceptions to the `within one rating’ policy. For example, trailer check reports reviewed by the Commission show that Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, rated PG, was regularly preceded by trailers for such films as The General’s Daughter (rated R for graphic images relating to sexual violence including a rape scene, some perverse sexuality, nudity and language), South Park (rated R for pervasive vulgar language and crude sexual humor, and for some violent images) and The Beach (rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, language and drug content).’

The Commission’s report takes in all other marketing efforts, including radio and print ads. The report even came down hard on promotional tie-ins. ‘Toys, children’s clothing and fast food appear to be primary promotional methods for generating interest in PG-13 movies among children 11 and younger. Three studios had licensing arrangements with toy and apparel companies for children’s merchandise based on violent PG-13 films. Although these agreements are intended to generate their own revenue as well as interest in seeing a film, the marketing materials reviewed by the Commission show they constitute an important facet of film promotion.’

Hollywood’s reaction to this study has been swift and sure. The major U.S. movie studios quickly announced a 12-point plan for marketing R-rated movies. This plan includes banning R-rated movies from appearing with G-rated pics or video releases; forbidding kids under 17 from being part of focus groups for R-rated films; and more detailed information on why R-rated films were rated thus.

Warner Home Video pushed back its release of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker from October to December to tone down the violence. ABC and Hearst-Argyle TV stations were the first to initiate new policies concerning advertising R-rated films-that none will be promoted on-air before 9 p.m.

The Gameworks arcade franchise (a joint venture between DreamWorks, Universal Studios and Sega) will ban kids under 16 from playing violent video games within its walls. ‘We’re taking a monumental step that could hurt our business, but we’re doing it because it’s the responsible thing to do,’ says Ron Bension, president of Gameworks. ‘Is this 100% bulletproof? Absolutely not.’

The FTC report is going to affect marketing and advertising policies of older teen- and adult-oriented films and video games. ‘This is an ongoing concern. You can go back to the 1920s to find this kind of governmental outrage. . . It’s not new,’ says EPM’s Meyer. ‘It happens to be an election year and an easy way to get some publicity. And it’s a legitimate concern as well-I’m not putting it down. I’m a father of two kids. I wonder about all this stuff and I watch it, and I see what they’re doing.’

Some industry executives are not taking it as calmly as Meyer. Peter Moore, president of Sega of America, told senators he found ‘it extremely difficult to justify banning M-rated [for those 17 and older] game titles from a magazine that has over half of its readership age 17 or older.’

‘It is neither practical nor fair to imply that we should bypass advertising media targeted to the gaming enthusiast simply because of the possibility of spillage to a young demographic,’ says Moore.

Violent video games are certainly getting the most heat from this issue. ‘We take a lot of video game ads because Fox Kids is geared towards boys,’ says Barbara Bekkedahl, executive VP of ad sales for Fox Family Network. ‘We only take E-rated [for everyone] games. After we look at the rating of the actual video game, we then make sure the commercial itself follows all of our guidelines. So if it’s an E-rated game, but they are showing too much violence in the commercial, we won’t take it. It’s just like a movie. We look at the rating of a movie-or the people in clearance will actually screen the movie and make sure that the actual product is safe for kids. Then we make sure the commercial meets our guidelines.’

So what can the industry do to help itself and appease the Federal Trade Commission? For one, it can start working together and use common sense in its marketing practices, taking a page from the playbooks of Disney, Nickelodeon, Fox Kids, PBS and other family brands that have been conscious of their responsibility to provide safe programming and advertising. ‘Our intention is to target children with our programming, so we take on the responsibility of making sure that whatever [advertising] we put on our air matches the guidelines we use ourselves,’ says Bekkedahl. ‘Some networks don’t necessarily target kids, but get kids, and they are the ones that aren’t thinking in terms of a child’s viewing. We certainly are. We’re not the target of this report. We’ve self-regulated for years, and we understand our responsibilities.’

Bekkedahl explains her working methods at Fox: ‘We have a whole legal clearance department here, the Fox Kids Network Clearance Group. And they have a whole team that makes sure the commercials that air on Fox Kids and Fox Family adhere to a pretty rigorous set of guidelines. And some of the guidelines, of course, adhere to the FCC laws, but there are also a lot of guidelines we impose upon ourselves. Primarily, they’re to insure that the advertising doesn’t use bad language, or have sex, violence or antisocial behavior. We take it one step further to make sure there’s nothing deceptive for children. An advertiser might do something- say over-sell something in a mock way that an adult would understand, but a kid would believe it to be true.

‘We work with our advertisers from the point when they start to create the commercials in storyboard phase. We look at what their plans are and we’ll give them comments and suggestions. We’ll go through every frame and make notes. We send that back to them, and they review it along with comments from other networks. And that’s how we’re involved, from the get-go, so that it’s safe for kids.’

Many industry pundits feel there is only so much the industry can do, that it’s ultimately up to parental guidance to protect

children from questionable material.

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