Sticker Shock

The FTC Markets Censorship as Consumer Protection

"I'm 'bout two seconds from saying, 'Fuck Joe Lieberman,' " Luther Campbell hollers into the phone from his home outside Miami. A quick disclaimer: "And it won't be no disrespect to Jewish people—I love Jewish people, they my friend. It's just that Joe Lieberman . . . I don't know why the fuck he don't just go ahead and be a goddamn Republican!"

Eleven years ago, As Nasty as They Wanna Be—by Campbell's rap group, 2 Live Crew—was declared obscene by a federal judge in Florida. It's a familiar story: Bruce Springsteen and Henry Louis Gates Jr. rushed to his defense, and a smutty rapper became a free speech hero. In 1992, an appeals court found that Nasty wasn't obscene after all. But in the last year or so, Campbell has started to feel a certain déjà vu. First there was the September Federal Trade Commission report entitled "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children." Then there was a wild hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, in which Lynne Cheney submitted her review of Eminem's new album: "It is despicable. It is horrible. This is dreadful. This is shameful. This is awful." Then last Tuesday the FTC released a follow-up report, singling out the record industry for pernicious marketing practices. Thursday, Joe Lieberman, along with senators Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001. The bill would "treat the marketing of adult-rated movies, music, and video games to children like any other deceptive act that harms consumers . . . [I]t would give the FTC the authority . . . to penalize companies that violate this provision with civil fines up to $11,000 per offense."

Not that anyone's talking about "the prurient interest" anymore. Where 2 Live Crew was targeted for songs about fucking, now the focus is on depictions of violence and their effect on children. Instead of banning lewd music, the new bill would simply fine companies that advertise "obscenity-laced records" to audiences that include a significant number of children. As Campbell points out, this bill would have the biggest impact on hip-hop. "No other music is as controversial as rap music," he says, sounding pleased.

The new FTC report confirms Campbell's prediction. In an appendix of 29 "stickered music recordings first [advertised] on programs popular with teens," 21 of the titles are hip-hop or r&b, ranging from Musiq Soulchild to Master P. And of these 21, 20 are cited for advertising on BET's Top Ten Live at 106th & Park, whose audience Nielsen pegs at 41 percent 17 and under. (MTV's Total Request Live, by comparison, hits 58 percent.) Similarly, the report takes Vibe magazine to task for running hip-hop ads, because 43.6 percent of its readers are underage. In short, the report finds that many hip-hop albums are "explicit" and that many hip-hop listeners are under 18. So if the Media Marketing Accountability Act passes into law, it could have a substantial effect on the rap industry. At any rate, Luther Campbell doesn't want to take any chances. "These rappers need to pool their money," he says. "Stay sober, leave that weed alone! We need a lawyer—and a lobbyist."

If Luke really wants to organize, he'd do well to enlist Danny Goldberg. Southern California Civil Liberties Union head and former Mercury Records president Goldberg was vocal in the fight against music censorship in the 1980s. He now runs Artemis, the Sony-distributed label that brought the world "Who Let the Dogs Out?" as well as such Lieberman-unfriendly fare as Kurupt (a foul-mouthed rapper) and Kittie (a foul-mouthed hard rock band). He's dismayed by how the new report takes aim at music that's always been used to negotiate the murky territory between childhood and adulthood. "They keep harping on the idea that records with parental advisory stickers are marketed to people under 17—as if there's something wrong with that. I mean, I cursed when I was that age. I have kids younger than that, and they've heard all these words."

Lieberman assumes that stickered albums have been rated "unsuitable for kids." But it's not that simple. The familiar black-and-white rectangle bearing the words "PARENTAL ADVISORY—EXPLICIT CONTENT" was created by the music industry in 1990 to help ward off government regulation. There is no age recommendation associated with the sticker, and no industry-wide body oversees its use. Goldberg explains that Artemis stickers its albums only under duress. "That's what the retailers want from us," he says, apologetically. "So if George Carlin's seven dirty words are on it, then we put a sticker on it. It's kinda dumb, but that's the way the world is."

In 10 years, the parental advisory label has become a fixture. The September FTC report estimated that one-third of the country's top-selling albums carried the tag, and its own study claims that 74 percent of parents are "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with the parental advisory label. These days, the rectangle is showing up everywhere from Twix commercials ("PEANUT BUTTER ADVISORY—UNEXPECTED CONTENT") to a line of "explicit" shirts by the hip-hop clothing company Damani Dada. In the rap world, where everyone curses, the label is automatically affixed to all new releases.

So why doesn't it carry an age recommendation the way movie ratings do? "Words are completely different in character than visual images, and much more open to subjective interpretation," Goldberg says. "Lyrics don't really correlate with movies, video games, or television. Lyrics correlate with books and magazines."

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