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Highlights of the FTC Report on Media Violence

A summary from the LA Times, 9/12/00:

Excerpts from the 104-page Federal Trade Commission report on violence in the media:


"The motion picture, music recording, and electronic game industries should stop targeting children under 17 in their marketing of products with violent content."

"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."

"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."

MOVIES:  R-rated films target children under 17

"Of the 44 movies rated R for violence the commission selected for its study, the commission found that 35, or 80%, were targeted to children under 17."

"The commission found numerous examples when trailers approved for 'all audiences' contained material that the Advertising Administration's handbook says might engender criticism by parents."

"An undercover shopper survey of 395 theaters conducted for the commission in May through July 2000 found that just over half of the theaters enforced the age restrictions at the box office."

MUSIC:  Retail stores don't monitor sales

"The undercover shopper study . . . confirms that retail stores rarely restrict children from purchasing explicit-labeled music."

"Of the 55 music recordings with explicit content labels the commission selected for its study, marketing plans for 15, or 27%, expressly identified teenagers as part of their target audience."

GAMES:  70% of 'mature' titles aimed at younger teens

"Of 118 electronic games with a mature rating for violence the commission selected for its study, 83, or 70%, targeted children under 17. The marketing plans for 60 of these, or 51%, expressly included children under 17 in their target audience."

Rated R for Ragamuffins
Want more examples of this persistent marketing onslaught? Okay. From the LA Times, 9/30/00:

A memo from one MGM publicist...describes studio efforts to send out "Teen Street Teams" to help lure children as young as 12 to "Disturbing Behavior," an R-rated movie.

An excerpt from the memo:

In promoting DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, 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. To do so, we went beyond the media partners by enlisting young, hip "Teen Street Teams" to distribute items at strategic teen "hangouts" such as malls, teen clothing stores, sporting events, driver's ed classes, arcades and numerous other locations.

In Southern California, [the studio] hired teenagers to pass out merchandise at underage hangouts. A summer program for hundreds of teens at New York City's American Academy of Dramatic Arts was called a "perfect demo-hit." The studio staked out popular teen skating spots, such as Manhattan's Chelsea Piers. In Seattle, it hired a promoter, nicknamed "Super Dave" because he "specializes in the underage dance club scene."

Also targeted were "all-age nightclubs, which attract huge teen crowds," a "trendy Philadelphia teen hangout," "teen hangout areas" in Atlanta and "a juice/dance bar catering to underage kids." So were "teen-specific retail outlets, promotional partners and community organizations" that included cheerleading camps, sports leagues, band and drill team camps and even driver's education classes.

The campaign was for a film that earned an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America for sexuality, drugs and strong violence, including scenes showing the killing of a policeman, a violent supermarket rampage, a woman smashing her head into a mirror and a high school jock who snaps a girl's neck, killing her.

Has the FTC report and the subsequent pressure on Hollywood helped? Yes. See Changes Since Columbine for examples. But as Brian Lowry notes in the LA Times, 4/29/01:

A cynic might also observe that entertainment companies are all too willing to throw bones to political critics on matters of content so long as Congress and regulatory agencies continue to rule the industry's way on matters of real importance to media moguls. These include the sweeping deregulation of ownership rules—sure to spur additional media consolidation—currently in progress. To keep those wheels greased, both sides thus have a vested interest in feeding the illusion that the campaign to curtail Hollywood—and "help parents"—claims the occasional victory.

Cool sex and violence
From an article on "The Merchants of Cool," a PBS Frontline special, in the LA Times, 2/27/01:

"Merchants" begins with the startling fact that there are now more American teens than at any previous time. They constitute a bigger gaggle of youth-quakers than even their baby-boomer parents. A whole new breed of market researchers called "cool hunters" scours the malls of America to spot the next big thing.

To cool hunter Dee Dee Gordon, the idea is simple: "We look for the kids who are ahead of the pack, because they're going to influence what all the other kids do." Then they sell these notions to big corporations.

When not marketing cool, corporations sell gender stereotypes. [Host] Rushkoff theorizes that corporate imagery has reduced youth culture to two prevailing stereotypes. Guys are "mooks," a combination of ultra-slob and comedy daredevil. Think Tom Green, "Jackass" and every working member of the World Wrestling Federation. Girls are packaged as "midriffs" (see Britney Spears), sexually confident Lolitas.

Are these corporations mirroring teen behavior and desires? Rushkoff thinks not, and points to examples of kids from this media-saturated generation merely aping what they've seen on MTV's "Spring Break" specials and "The Real World."

In other words, kids are imitating TV, not the other way around. And from a sexuality column in the LA Times, 4/30/01:

...[C]hildren increasingly and at ever-younger ages are being sexualized, eroticized and exposed to torrents of inappropriate messages about sexuality. "They are seeing sex ad nauseam without context, without adults standing next to them and saying, 'Let's talk about what we just saw and what it means,' " says Roffman, author of the new book "Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex" (Perseus). "Children do not have the ability to interpret it...."

The same applies to violence, of course.

MTV as an example
This attempt to create "cool" isn't limited to MTV, pro wrestling, and Britney Spears videos, of course. It extends over a range of media, from rap songs to shock radio to shows like The Man Show and South Park. But, as Patrick Goldstein reports in the LA Times (8/22/01), MTV is central to today's youth culture:

If you're growing up in America, nothing else is remotely as influential as MTV in shaping your taste in music, movies and fashion, the three subjects that absorb roughly 99% of the average teenager's day-to-day brain transmissions. Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune explains how MTV works. From the LA Times, 3/26/01:

MTV has transformed itself from a kind of video jukebox into a programming service pandering to teens and their legion of base instincts. The channel is now defined more by shows like the stunt-moron showcase "Jackass," the shockingly kinky (and even more shockingly tedious) soap opera "Undressed" and the upcoming dull bacchanalian throb of its annual (and nearly perpetual) spring break programming.

Promulgated by inept actors mouthing inane dialogue, the behavior on "Undressed," in which high schoolers get intimate at first meeting, makes Madonna's coquette act seem a relic of an era when people said "coquette." And the girls (and many of the boys) featured in spring break shows act as if the height of vocational attainment is a job as an exotic dancer.
As bad as all the cynical lewdness is the MTV hypocrisy. In its programming choices and pitches to advertisers, MTV is obviously focusing on its profound influence in the youth market. But when a confused kid in Connecticut gives himself severe burns imitating a human-barbecue stunt on "Jackass," MTV says it isn't to blame.

In a sense, it is right. Any rational viewer looking at "Jackass" recognizes what it is: a pack of in-the-flesh "Beavis & Butt-head" acolytes doing meatheaded and sometimes hilarious things just to get on TV. They are a circus freak show playing in a giant tent. But teens and preteens, MTV should know as well as anyone, are not always rational.

Since that incident, the channel has made its don't-try-this-at-home "Jackass" warning more stern and less jokey, but there is no other evidence of a bout of self-examination or acceptance of the fact that with the rewards of marketing to teens come special responsibilities.

The MTV ethic, which has brought about in the last few years a reinvigoration of the channel's flagging ratings, challenges the natural order of things. Teens are supposed to want to do bad, even self-destructive things. Adults are supposed to try to stop them, or at least put pillows in the room to minimize the damage. But throw in the marketing imperative, and suddenly the adults who roam MTV's hall are looking for new ways to feed those self-destructive tendencies.

One commentator nailed Jackass and all the other media tainting our youth's collective consciousness well. From the letters to the LA Times, 3/25/01:

A symbol of "teenage rebellion"? Not from a multimillion-dollar corporation like MTV. More a symbol of the burgeoning, self-absorbed, desensitized cullture that finds human pain entertaining.

Los Angeles

All these shows, even if they're nominally entertainment, are promoting lifestyle choices. "Buy now," "get lucky," and "be a winner" are some of the obvious messages. The more covetous someone is, the more he'll demand the shows' products to fulfill his unsatisfied urges.

This marketing assault is unique in American history. You can talk about Roman gladiator fights, English bear-baiting, or the Marquis de Sade, but those were limited, local influences. Television and other forms of mass media have made today's pervasive mass market possible. They sell sex, violence, and other forms of self-gratification around the clock, literally 24/7.

Media intrudes constantly
How pervasive is the media in young lives today? Some examples from the LA Times, 10/4/00:

Jennifer Oconitrillo and her friends began their day off from school at her home in Culver City with a dose of Sally Jesse Raphael. Jennifer, a 12-year-old with a big smile and braces, defended Sally's guest, a 14-year-old girl who had been sleeping with her 18-year-old boyfriend against her parents' wishes. The girls then sang some songs by one of their favorite rappers, Eminem, whose lyrics include fantasies about sexual encounters, rape and murder.

Timothy Goldman, a friendly 15-year-old freshman at Dorsey High School, spent a sunny Saturday afternoon playing what he called "simulation games for killing people" in the lobby of the Magic Johnson Theatres in the Crenshaw district. Later, he went home and channel surfed, stopping briefly on cartoons and music videos.

Jake Parsons, 15, hung out Sunday at the Irvine Spectrum, where he and three friends bought tickets for a PG-rated movie at the mall's 21-screen megaplex, then sneaked into the R-rated "The Exorcist." Later, Jake settled in his room with his computer, his stereo and his 250-channel TV.

Haven't kids glued themselves to the tube ever since it became commonplace? Didn't reports show they watched TV six hours a day decades ago? Yes.

So how is today's exposure worse than yesterday's? Movie critic Kenneth Turan notes the differences in the LA Times, 10/2/00:

...[I]t's important to recognize several factors that do not correlate with adult panic states of the past. For one thing, special effects technology has advanced to such a point that the most stomach-turning violence can be graphically rendered on screen with almost clinical verisimilitude. For another, TV and the computer have made popular culture more pervasive, more difficult for anyone to resist, than at any previous time. Finally, because of the amount of money at their disposal, young people are not just absorbing things intended for adults, they are setting the agenda for an entire culture. If, in previous eras, adults worried that things they liked would corrupt children, now the problem is that material adults don't even care for is being supported to a great extent by a youthful audience that seems impervious to adult influence.

"Extremely attractive forbidden fruit"
Patricia Ramsey, a professor of psychology and education and director of the Gorse Child Study Center at Mount Holyoke College, reacts to the FTC report. From the LA Times, 9/15/00:

This week, after learning of Monday's Federal Trade Commission report on selling violence to kids, I understood what we were up against. It was not that we had especially blood-thirsty children (as I had secretly feared) or that we lived in a town of violence-prone children and irresponsible parents. Our children, like their peers all across the country—and probably the world—have been the targets of deliberate marketing strategies. They are displaying completely logical and predictable responses to advertising campaigns skillfully pitched to their specific needs and interests.

Cynically, the purveyors of violence have turned the rating system into an advertising advantage. By making these products so violent and/or sexually explicit that they are officially restricted, yet advertising them to children under 17, they create an extremely attractive forbidden fruit that dangles enticingly in front of ever-younger children.

According to the FTC report, the marketing strategies target the 12- to 17-year-old audience by advertising in teen magazines and on television shows. However, as every parent, teacher and market strategist knows, advertising trickles down to the younger ages through neighborhood and sibling networks. Movies, video games and music that teens find appealing quickly grab the attention of the preteens and on down.

The FTC report is careful not to blame violent media for specific acts of violence. It is true that most of our children, despite their exposure to increasingly violent media, will probably not become serial killers or perpetrate the next Columbine-like tragedy. But the imagery seeps into their conversations and peppers their play. Children imitate these models because they offer the illusion of power and strength. And as trash talk and "might is right" increasingly pervades the peer culture, each child has to ratchet up his own facade of bravado in order to maintain his position, and the cycle goes on.

Of course, we know that children, especially boys, always have played aggressive games. But instead of inventing their own themes and weapons and using them to play out their issues surrounding power, they are immersed in and stimulated by imagery that is far more brutal than anything that they could conjure up themselves.

Or as columnist Shawn Hubler put it in the LA Times, 9/11/00:

...[A]rguing that kids aren't affected by violence is like saying toddlers aren't affected by Twinkies. Try putting your kids in front of a Jackie Chan movie sometime and see how long it takes for them to start karate-kicking things.

Are parents doing their job?
Are parents like Ramsey and Hubler simply not trying hard enough? Ramsey addresses the point:

For now, my husband and I, feeling ever more beleaguered, are standing firm: no R-rated movies, no M-rated video games and no parental-advisory CDs.

But the cost is high—many confrontations and the end of our pleasurable Friday evening ritual of renting and watching movies, because our kids are no longer interested in the kind of movies that we prefer that they see.

I know we are not alone—many parents describe themselves as "holding back the tide" and "being swamped" by the pressures of advertising directed at children.

So does Ronald Brownstein in his column on the followup to the FTC's report. From the LA Times, 4/30/01:

The larger question is the competition parents face in shaping their children's values from a marketing culture that relentlessly tells kids they can find happiness only from a new pair of Nikes or Gap cargo pants. Struggling to resist that message, parents often feel like Linda Hamilton trying to outlast the Terminator: Eventually you'll have to sleep, but it never does.

So does Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. From the LA Times, 3/8/01:

The belief that the parents of the shooter must have done something wrong serves as reassurance for other parents. "I'm raising my kid right," they tell themselves. "My kid would never do such a thing."

Unfortunately, there is a limit to what good parenting can do. Modern children lead two almost independent lives: their lives at home with their parents and siblings and their lives outside the home, where the most important people are their peers. No amount of parental love can keep a kid from being miserable if his peers pick on him or reject him.

Most school shooters are kids who were picked on or rejected by their peers. They have been badly hurt and made to feel puny and powerless. They want to get even and they want to feel powerful. Guns in their hands makes them feel powerful.

Though many school shooters tell others about their plans, I haven't heard of any who warned their parents. The parents of the Columbine shooters, for example, said they had no idea what their sons were planning. Teenage boys often act mysterious, and many like to play with explosives. Even kids who actually make threats don't usually mean them. We couldn't possibly lock up every kid who talks about killing someone. Only a tiny minority of them will ever carry out their threats.

How can we tell who will and who won't? The short answer is: We can't. We will never be able to predict human behavior perfectly, because it's too complex and chance plays too big a role. School shootings occur when a number of relatively common predisposing factors all come together to produce an extremely unlikely outcome. It's the fact that they're so unlikely—so rare—that make school shootings so hard to predict and therefore to prevent.

The answer
No, parents haven't mysteriously forgotten how to parent. Rather, they're facing a much greater onslaught of media-induced pressure. To put it simply:  Parenting = same. Media = worse.

Vice Presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman agrees. On CNN, 9/13/00, he said: "Parents are locked in a losing competition with culture to raise our children." The media, of course, is a prime deliverer of culture.

Therefore, we can blame the media for much of the increased sex and violence in our society. And we can attack the problem at its rightful source. Not by censoring, but by demanding change.

Updates to the FTC report
2001 #2:  "Movie, video game makers are credited for restricting minors from mature material, but music fails."
2001 #1:  "The new analysis found that the movie and video game industries had generally improved their practices."

Related links
The evidence against media violence
Why parents aren't fully responsible for how their kids turn out
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

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