Print ads for the new thriller Hitman show more of co-star Olga Kurylenko than you might expect. In one poster she’s wearing a sheer, red-tinted hanky masquerading as a dress. If you’re lewd enough to look between her legs, you’ll see the curve of her right buttock and a small genital bulge. The Explainer’s no prude, but Kurylenko’s skimpy attire got her wondering: Who’s supposed to keep movie posters family-friendly?
The Motion Picture Association of America. Any producer who submits a film for rating must tender all publicity materials—including posters, still photographs, and trailers—to the MPAA’s advertising administration. Technically, producers can forgo the MPAA system, accept a “not rated” label, and print salacious ads from noon till night. But major theater chains rarely exhibit unrated flicks, so renegades stand to lose a whole lot of cash.
Before the good people of the advertising administration approve a poster, they make sure it’s suitable for all viewers. Ads can’t depict nudity or sexual activity, violence toward women, cruelty to animals, or rape. Other no-nos include sacrilege, cadavers, people or animals on fire, blood, offensive gestures, and references to drugs. It’s also not OK to capitalize on the film’s MPAA rating—i.e., “R has never gone this far,” or “Banned in Boston.” The approval process differs somewhat for in-theater trailers, which receive colored tags. Green tags are suitable for any audience whereas red tags may only play to audiences viewing R or NC-17 movies.
If the MPAA deems a poster unsuitable, the film company must scrap the ad or submit a revision. In May 2006, the advertising administration rejected a poster for the documentary film The Road to Guantanamo, which featured a man hanging by his handcuffed wrists with a burlap sack over his head. Apparently, the MPAA objected specifically to the burlap “hooding,” presumably because it was too frightening for young viewers. So the film’s distributors created a new poster, which showed only a pair of shackled hands and arms.
Poster inspection has a long history—it dates back to 1933, or to one year before the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which later became the MPAA) began enforcing the Hays production code. Print management was a priority because the easily outraged moral guardian crowd was unlikely to make it past the salacious posters and into the theater. As a result, the MPPDA received more complaints about ads than actual films.
So what’s the deal with the Hitman ad that so offended the Explainer’s delicate sensibilities? Sometimes studios break the rules by circulating posters without approval. Back in 2005, for example, Lionsgate distributed unauthorized Saw II posters depicting severed fingers. But Daybreak Productions and 20th Century Fox, the companies behind Hitman, played it safe, went through the review process, and received an official OK for their salacious ad campaign. Maybe the advertising administration didn’t catch the genital bulge, and decided that sheer hankies count as clothing.
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Explainer thanks Kori Bernards of the Motion Picture Association of America and Thomas Dohertyof Brandeis University.