Targeting entertainment marketers that spend more than $3 billion annually on advertising, the FTC report -- to be released today -- says entertainment companies violated their own self-regulatory codes by "expressly targeting" younger consumers for material deemed unsuitable for children under 17 years of age. The report assails marketers for advertising the products on TV programs such as Comedy Central's "South Park" and the WB's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," as well as in magazines and on Web sites "most likely" to reach children under 17.
"Companies in those industries routinely target children under 17 as the audience for movies, music and games that their own rating or labeling systems say are inappropriate for children or warrant parental caution due to their violent nature," the report reads.
In a move ad groups feared, the FTC set a new standard for determining when an underage audience is "substantial" -- specifically, when 35% or more of the audience is under 17. Up to now individual industries have set their own figures.
Besides "Buffy" and "South Park," the report identified the syndicated TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess"; magazines such as GamePro, Right On! and Seventeen; and Web sites MTV.com, ubl.com and happypuppy.com as inappropriate marketing vehicles for content aimed at older audiences. The report also listed as inappropriate teen "hangouts," such as sports apparel stores and pizza parlors.
The report is certain to cause a stir in Washington. President Bill Clinton, who requested the report, is expected to comment on its release today. On Wednesday the Senate Commerce Committee headed by Sen. John McCain, (R., Ariz.) will hear testimony from marketers and from Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut senator who has long been critical of the media.
Among the report's quantitative findings:
* Of 44 movies rated R for violence examined by the FTC, 35, or 80%, were targeted to children under 17. Marketing plans for 28 of those films specifically stated the target audience included under-17 consumers.
* Among 55 music recordings with parental advisory labels, 15, or 27%, expressly identified "teen-agers" as part of the target audience.
* Among 118 games with a Mature rating, 83, or 70%, targeted children under 17 with a marketing plan for one game describing the "primary" audience as 12 to 17 years old.
While the FTC report does not propose legislation, it asks the entertainment industries to take three major actions:
* Expand industry codes to expressly prohibit marketing inappropriate content to younger consumers and to sanction companies that do not comply. The Recording Industry Association of America recently adopted a revised code barring ads for music with parental advisory labels in media where less then half the target demographic is 16 or older.
* Increase compliance at the retail level by doing a better job of checking consumer identification.
* Increase education efforts.
MARKETERS, AD GROUPS WORRIED
Before details of the report were available, videogame marketers expressed concern about its content, while both movie and music companies declined comment.
Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, said his group agreed that games directed at adults should not be advertised to children.
"The only question is where the FTC is drawing the line," he said before seeing the 35% number. "If the practical effect is to put it at some level that puts off-limits every game magazine, that is problematic."
Ad group representatives worried about setting a standard.
"The idea of holding people to some kind of standard of liability for a rather imprecise audience measurement system is dicey," said Jim Cregan, exec VP of the Magazine Publishers of America. "We are concerned about it, and it worries all media groups when the government attempts to dictate or put explicit pressure on advertisers or individual members of the media to behave in a certain way."