Gore tells Hollywood to stop marketing violence

US entertainment industry: Government turns its fire on companies for illegally targeting children with bloodthirsty films, videos and computer games
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The Independent US

The predilection of Hollywood for violent films and video games was thrust into the glare of the US presidential election campaign yesterday as a government report, commissioned after a number of teenage shooting sprees in schools, accused the entertainment industry of aiming graphic material at under-age audiences.

The predilection of Hollywood for violent films and video games was thrust into the glare of the US presidential election campaign yesterday as a government report, commissioned after a number of teenage shooting sprees in schools, accused the entertainment industry of aiming graphic material at under-age audiences.

The Federal Trade Commission report found producers of films, electronic games and records courted teenagers and younger children for material their own ratings systems deemed appropriate for adults only. Violence was depicted as cool in teenage magazines, in television advertising and on the internet, and there was inadequate enforcement of ratings guidelines at cinemas, video stores, and record and computer shops.

Vice-President Al Gore and his running-mate on the Democratic ticket, Senator Joe Lieberman, said they would give Hollywood six months to clean up its act, then seriously consider legislation to restrict abusive marketing techniques.

Republican politicians were gleeful at the prospect of Senate hearings next month that would enable them to rake studio heads over the coals and extract political capital out of a popular culture that they believe has eroded American values of decency, respect and family cohesiveness.

Hollywood responded with defensiveness, bemusement and indignation at being used as a political football. "There is no industry that gives as much advance notice to consumers as we do," said Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America and Hollywood's chief lobbyist in Washington.

He added that he understood where the political impulse was coming from. "Frankly," he told The New York Times in characteristically mischievous fashion, "if I were running for office I'd be trashing the movie industry myself."

For all the sound and fury, the scope of the FTC report was specific and its conclusions almost impossible to refute. Without naming names - either of films, games or CDs, or of the studios pushing them - it looked at how violent and otherwise explicit material is advertised and asked if there was evidence of deliberate intent to ensnare young people.

"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?" the report's lead writer, Robert Pitofsky, asked at a briefing in Washington. "The report found that for all three segments of the entertainment industry, the answers are plainly 'yes'."

Advertising for R-rated films - the most restrictive mainstream rating, which bans entry to anyone under 17 unless accompanied by an adult - shows up on popular teenage television shows such as The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Violent films and video games and records with explicit lyrics are also promoted on popular teenage websites and in teen magazines.

The report quoted an internal marketing document from an unnamed studio that said of an R-rated film: "Our goal was to find the elusive teen targeting audience and make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film ... we went beyond the media partners by enlisting young 'teen street teams' to distribute items at strategic teen 'hangouts' such as malls, teen clothing stores, sporting events, drivers' classes, arcades and numerous other locations."

Goaded into action by the massacre at Columbine High School in April 1999, the FTC investigators spent a year going through studio documents and measuring enforcement policies at shops and cinemas. Mr Pitofsky said he was not interested in judging the violence itself, nor was it his mandate to single out individual products or producers. "No one was consistently worse than anyone else," he said. "It was pervasive across the board."

The quickest political reaction came from the Democratic presidential candidates, both of whom have a history of attacking Hollywood for its excesses. "This is a serious matter for our country, and we are delivering to the industry a six-month deadline to adopt voluntary standards and real enforcement mechanisms," Mr Gore said in an interview in yesterday's New York Times.

The recording industry, anticipating the FTC report, has issued guidelines urging marketing departments to label explicit material clearly and keep advertising away from unsuitable audiences. That will not be so easy for the film industry, since the bulk of its revenue comes from teenage audiences; films that do not carry the R rating are rarely considered cool enough for young people to want to see.

Because of the constitution's defence of freedom of speech, it may not be possible to formulate legislation that links inappropriate marketing of violence to existing curbs on false and deceptive advertising.

Already yesterday some Republicans were accusing Mr Gore of political posturing that will eventually lead to nothing.

What is guaranteed, however, is a season of high political theatre. The Senate Commerce Committee, headed by the erstwhile Republican presidential candidate John McCain, will hold hearings in the midst of campaign fever next month, and hopes to pressure studio heads and other prominent entertainment industry figures into testifying.

Only Mr Valenti and one studio head, Stacey Snider, have agreed to appear.

Others, including Steven Spielberg's partner at DreamWorks, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, have avoided the issue, claiming to be too busy or out of the country.

Mr Gore, meanwhile, risks some embarrassment at a series of celebrity-stuffed fund-raising concerts over the next few days. On Thursday he is due to be entertained at the New York City Music Hall by a line-up including Bette Midler, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett and the actor Ben Affleck. It remains to be seen whether Mr Buffett, a popular country rock star, performs his scurrilous 1970s hit "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw".