Marketers and media executives are girding for a potentially damning Federal Trade Commission report that will charge film and videogame makers market and sell products rated "for mature audiences" to younger teens.
The report, due as soon as this week, also is fueling ad groups' worries that the standards for reaching underage readers imposed on tobacco ads will quickly spread to other industries, affecting media and raising First Amendment questions.
The Freedom to Advertise Coalition last week began meeting with congressional staff to discuss the issue, said several members.
The FTC report is on the marketing to teens of movies, videogames and music rated for mature audiences. It is expected to suggest that while marketers rate their products, they have ignored ratings in running ads.
Several major TV networks last week told Advertising Age they take steps to ensure that ads for R-rated movies don't air on programs with high appeal to teens under 17. They accomplish this by either limiting the hours the ads may run or banning them from "family" programs. UPN, however, said it had run such ads on "Moesha," a program featuring rock star Brandy, whose Nielsen ratings show that 37% of the audience is under 17.
Mike Mandelker, exec VP-advertising sales of UPN parent Paramount Network, said the network evaluates the ad itself, rather than the rating of the product it advertises.
"You have to take a look at the content of the shows that you are selling. You want to make sure that the action you are seeing is appropriate for the time period," he said. "I don't look at the movie rating, I look at the trailer. If the trailer is too tough, I'm not OK with it."
Some senators said that isn't enough. Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.), Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) requested the FTC study, and President Clinton seconded their request last year.
Sen. McCain's Senate Commerce Committee has set a high-profile hearing for Sept. 13 in which Hollywood moguls and perhaps Sen. Lieberman, now a candidate for vice president, will testify.
An aide to Sen. McCain said last week that the hearing is aimed at getting the marketers to use the ratings not only to guide consumers, but also to determine how and where they advertise their products.
"What this is dangerously close to is a conclusion that the ratings aren't there to protect kids but to create a smoke screen," said David Crane, a Senate Commerce Committee staffer.
"Depending on how the industry reacts, the report could be a tool for constructive change or, if the industry chooses to ignore it, it will likely become a damaging weapon to force the change," he said.
FTC officials said the agency sees the report as "informational." For the ad industry, the big question may be about standards to be set.
Brewers currently do not place ads in programs for which more than half the audience is under 21, while some tobacco players won't run ads in titles where more than 15% of the readership is under 18 or where 2 million kids would see them.
There are, however, some differences between those industries.
While consumers under 21 are banned from buying alcohol and those under 18 can't buy cigarettes, in the movie, videogame and music industries, ratings are advisory. Further, movie ratings allow those under 17 to see films with a parent or adult guardian.
'AN INFORMATIVE GUIDE'
"It's meant to be a very informative guide," a veteran movie marketing executive said of the R rating. "It's not like cigarettes where you can't buy it. . . . There are some R-rated movie commercials that are inappropriate, such as [those] running in early evening. But these are things we are sensitive to."
A Fox network executive said that kids under 17 are a relatively small part of the TV audience, adding that advertisers trying to limit ads seen by kids may end up limiting adult viewers' exposure.
"The question is how many is OK," said a Fox spokesman. "Of the Nielsen sample of 261 million people, 22.6 million are teens and 39.9 million are younger children."
Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.