Young Americans love the movies. R-rated movies, violent movies, horror movies, sexy movies - they like them all, and consequently pour billions of dollars into the pockets of Hollywood stars and producers.
Now the marketing of violent movies to America's kids by Hollywood could become one of the hottest issues in the 2000 campaign for the White House.
The Federal Trade Commission, following a one-year million-dollar study, found that motion picture companies intentionally direct their marketing plans for violent, R-rated movies to children under 17.
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, citing the FTC report, immediately vowed to pass new laws to regulate the entertainment industry unless movie companies and other firms began abiding by their own rating codes. "If I'm entrusted with the presidency, I am going to do something about this," he said.
The FTC report, in addition to motion pictures, also looked at the marketing efforts for video games and music. The results were similar. Music with explicit content as well as games with a "mature" rating often were marketed to children under 17.
FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky told a press conference on Monday: "I don't want the Federal Trade Commission to be the thought police." But he says: "This situation must be addressed."
Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, suggests the impact of violence in movies is being overstated. He said: "If we are causing moral decay in this country, we ought to have an explosion of crime. The exact opposite is happening."
Mr. Valenti praises Hollywood's rating system: "For almost 32 years, this industry has been the only segment of our national marketplace that voluntarily turns away revenues at the box office to redeem the pledge that we have made to parents."
The drumbeat of criticism, however, is growing louder. David Grossman, author of "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill," says: "Ultimately we're going to see change on this in one of three ways: education, legislation, or litigation." He adds: "The First Amendment does not include the right to sell pornography to children. Inevitably, where we are headed is to treat these violent images the same way we treat pornographic images."
The FTC study was no shock to Robert Knight of the Family Research Council in Washington. What is new, he says, is that "the industry has been caught targeting kids." Up to now, Mr. Knight says, the rating system acted as a "heat shield" that protected the entertainment industry because it was assumed that violent images and music were directed primarily at an adult audience. The FTC study refutes that assumption.
Mr. Pitofsky at the FTC says the entertainment companies were "entirely cooperative" in supplying thousands of documents that detailed their marketing efforts. "We received from them all the documents that we asked for," he says.
That cooperative spirit was reflected by the FTC chairman, who says that his agency now will take a wait-and-see attitude in hopes that the industry will reverse course and begin acting in accordance with its own code.
Already, some retail firms have taken notice and bowed to pressure from parents. On Oct. 15, Kmart says its clerks will begin to check the ID of young shoppers who are buying "Mature-rated" videogames. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. already has a similar policy, while Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward have stopped selling most violent videogames.
Such news cannot come too soon for Ellie Rovella, a mother of two teenage boys in Tempe, Ariz. Several years ago her oldest boy, Michael, came home with Primal Rage, a Sega Genesis videogame in which animals fight dinosaurs. The crowning blow was the move that allowed the champion to urinate on a corpse.
Mrs. Rovella, who started a nonprofit group aimed at ending the sale of violent videogames to children, says: "We can control our kids to a certain degree, but we can't be around them 24 hours a day. We need some help."
Mr. Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, promise to bring the full weight of the law onto companies that continue marketing "adult-rated" products to children.
Yet Gore's challenge to Hollywood could shake his support among entertainment industry leaders, who are among his largest contributors. Some entertainment officials were already skittish about Gore and his wife, Tipper, because of an earlier crusade against music lyrics.
Overriding such concerns could be the importance of the vote of women in this election. Currently, Gore trails Republican nominee George W. Bush among men voters, but makes that up with a huge lead among women.
Gallup and other pollsters find that women in particular are concerned about violence, sex, and profanity in movies and other forms of entertainment. Going after Hollywood would speak directly to that female audience.
Governor Bush "believes the entertainment industry has to take personal responsibility for the products it provides to our children," says spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Parents also have a role to play. We're all in this together."
Jean Kilbourne, a visiting scholar at Wellesley College who has tracked advertising's impact for two decades, notes: "There are many countries in which it is against the law for advertisers to target children. I for one support this, and I don't see it as censorship. I see it as a legitimate way to protect our children."
Kris Axtman, Kim Campbell, and Craig Savoye contributed to this report
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society