Remote Control

This week the Federal Trade Commission officially accusedHollywood of intentionally luring children to violent movies, TV programs, and video games. Although the FTC doesn’t support legislation of entertainment industry marketing, Al Gore might, and Slate’s “Culturebox” columnist, Judith Shulevitz, does too. In this conversation, she and Jack Shafer, Slate’s deputy editor and “Press Box” columnist, debate whether ads for violent entertainment should be regulated, censored, or just turned off.

Dear Jack,

OK, let’s face it. The Democrats couldn’t have asked for better timing for the release of the Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing of violent fare to kids, and both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are demagoguing this one completely. But just because something is political doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We have to examine the question on its merits: Should there be tighter restrictions on the way violent fare is marketed to children?

Let me back up here and make it clear that we’re not talking about censorship—contra Slate’s own Breakfast Tablers, who seem to think we are. Nobody wants to regulate what’s actually in violent movies, CDs, and video games. The subject of the FTC report and this discussion is the marketing of those things. So let’s rephrase the question this way: Given that the entertainment industries have agreed to designate certain movies, CDs, and video games as too violent for children, should they then be allowed to turn around and advertise those products on TV and radio stations, in print media, and on Web sites aimed at those same children?

I think the answer is no—as long as we can find a constitutional way to prevent it.

Why? Well, for one, it is a well-established principle that children should be treated differently from adults, even when it comes to such protected categories as speech. The Supreme Court has said that the “well-being of its children is of course a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate.” If you agree with that, then you have to agree that there’s at least the possibility that violent media are among those things the state has an interest in keeping kids away from, along with obscene media or ads that tell children it’s admirable to smoke.

Second, it seems to me that complicated constitutional concerns aside, this is a straightforward consumer issue—a matter of good faith. If the industries agree to adopt a ratings system, which is essentially a kind of consumer aid to parents, then they have an obligation to live up to it. (I mean, if they don’t like the ratings system, then they should change it, or make the principled case that they shouldn’t have ratings in the first place. The one thing I think the industries shouldn’t do is institute ratings then flout them. That’s a form of false labeling, it seems to me.) The FTC report makes it clear that they are not living up to their own ratings in two ways: 

  1. The entertainment industry is neither explaining its own ratings systems very well to parents, nor is it making sure that they’re enforced in movie theaters and in stores. For instance, I never knew there was a violence-related ratings system for video games—which puts me in the near-majority of parents, according to the FTC report. I’m not lazy or devil-may-care. Video-game producers just don’t seem interested in having me know the details of their rating system and haven’t put the word out very well. It’s not only parents who are left in the dark. Video-game store clerks seem equally unaware that children aren’t supposed to buy M-rated products (M stands for mature, which correlates roughly to what they call, in video-game terminology, “realistic blood-and-gore”). According to an experiment conducted by the FTC, children were able to buy M-rated games 85 percent of the time they tried.

  2. The studios and music companies and video-game producers are trying to do an end run around their own ratings systems. There’s something frankly hypocritical about Miramax giving a movie an “R,” then devoting a large portion of the movie’s ad budget to media buys in TV and radio shows and magazines and Web sites devoted primarily to children who are supposed to be too young to decide for themselves whether or not to go. If you’re going to have a system that designates age-appropriateness for viewers of your products, then it follows that you should have the same system for viewers of your advertising—to the best of your ability.

Here’s the thing, Jack. Have you ever agreed to let a child do something because he nagged and nagged and nagged you to let him? Part of my job as a parent is making sure that my children see only what they can handle. But I am no match for the entertainment industry plus the advertising industry and their multimillion-dollar budgets. You have no idea—or maybe you do—how hard it can be to say no to a child who has been watching a trailer on his kiddie station for some R-rated movie or M-rated video game for the past three weeks, especially when all the other parents are saying yes.

That’s why I agree with Bill Clinton when he says that even if marketing unsuitable material to children isn’t illegal, it’s still wrong. I don’t want the government to do anything unconstitutional—I just want it to do something.