Marketers faced two shots across the bow. Three Democratic senators introduced legislation giving the FTC authority to challenge marketers that rate movies, video games and music for one audience, but advertise them to another. Further, a warning was delivered that Congress would retaliate if the entertainment industry dropped existing voluntary ratings.
"There is little doubt that the constant barrage of violent and sexually explicit material is taking a toll [on our children]," said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who joined with Sens. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D.,Wis.) in introducing the "Media Marketing Accountability Act."
Sen. Clinton hinted at further action: "If there was a move on behalf of the entertainment industry [to drop current ratings], I think you will see a reaction in Congress. ... We require food companies to list ingredients on their labeling. It is not much of a stretch to say what we are letting our children put in their heads has as much impact as what we are putting into their stomachs."
The formal proposed bill would allow the FTC to use consumer-protection laws against marketers that rate products for those over 17 but market them to kids. Movie and music interests didn't take threats lightly.
Jack Valenti, president-CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said the bill would reward companies that don't offer ratings while creating risks for those that do. He predicted it wouldn't go anywhere. If it did pass, "I would recommend my companies not risk prosecution. I would very reluctantly recommend that this [ratings] system that I and some others created almost 33 years ago be abandoned."
He challenged Sen. Clinton's food comparison."You are not dealing with cereal or apple juice. ... You are dealing with Supreme Court-ordered protection of First Amendment protected material."
In a statement, Cary Sherman, senior exec VP-general counsel for the Recording Industries Association of America, said the bill raised constitutional "red flags." "By essentially punishing those who adopt voluntary guidelines," he added, "the legislation would have the unintentional result of discouraging participation in the successful [music industry] Parental Advisory Program."
Advertising lawyers issued warnings about the bill; one section would have the FTC set a legal standard of when an audience has "a substantial number of minors."
Sen. Lieberman dismissed criticism, calling the bill "a narrowly tailored shield to help protect our children." He said marketers could avoid FTC action with self-regulation that prevented ads from running in media with youth audience higher than the FTC allowed.
The controversy came as the FTC issued an update on a September study that accused movie, video-game and music marketers of rating violent products for those over 17 but marketing them to kids. The new report credited the movie and video-game industries with responding but said the music industry has done little. The FTC said record companies advertised music labeled as containing explicit content on TV programs and in magazines where substantial parts of the viewership or readership-in some cases more than half-were under 17. The FTC again suggested marketers shouldn't advertise products rated for those over 17 in media seen by large numbers of youth.
FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky in a statement urged the industry to move further, but warned against congressional action: "Because government intrusion in decisions about content raises important First Amendment concerns, self-regulation continues to be the preferred solution to problems in this area."