FTC Will Not Limit Marketing of Films to Kids

Questioning their own legal authority, Federal Trade Commission regulators have backed away from suggestions that they move to limit promoting and marketing violent films and video games to children and adolescents. "After a careful review of the entertainment industry's marketing practices and an analysis of the law, the commission believes that there are a number of significant legal limitations, including substantial and unsettled constitutional questions, to effective law enforcement actions under the FTC Act," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky stated.

The November 21 decision came in the wake of Congressional investigations that found Democratic senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and Republican Senator and former presidential hopeful John McCain on the same side of the issue. The September hearings revealed that film distributors often used information gained from focus groups of children under 17 to promote entertainment with adult themes. Hollywood executives have expressed contrition over blatantly inappropriate pitches aimed at kids and have vowed to police their own ranks.

The culmination of a study undertaken earlier in the summer at the insistence of President Clinton, the investigations revealed sleazy marketing tactics on the part of studios and distributors and lax enforcement of age restrictions by theater owners. Pitofsky determined that film studios cannot be held accountable for under-age admissions at theaters.

Citing potential First Amendment issues, FTC commissioners decided they did not have the legal authority to push the film industry on the marketing issue and opted instead to promote self-regulation, making several suggestions as to how the industry might clean up its promotional act. "The commission believes that the best course is for the Congress to continue efforts to promote substantially improved, voluntary, self-regulatory efforts," Pitofsky wrote in a letter to McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a longtime critic of violence in media. Pitofsky also expressed doubt about whether any actions by his agency "would advance the goal of providing increased protection to children."

Film industry executives hailed the decision and reaffirmed their eagerness to scale back advertising of violent material aimed at kids. "We have always believed that both the content and the marketing of movies were protected by the First Amendment," said Warner Brothers president Alan Horn, "but that doesn't diminish our commitment to marketing our films responsibly."

McCain isn't ready to let the entertainment industry completely off the hook, however. He explicitly stated that he would expect further public statements from executives reiterating their commitment "not to target children with advertising for restricted products." He also wants producers and retailers of such fare to make efforts to inform parents about content and to enforce age restrictions and parental approval requirements "at the point of purchase."