Sticker Shock

The FTC Markets Censorship as Consumer Protection

With the exception of FCC-regulated media such as radio and television, film has the dubious distinction of being the country's most censored art form. Or perhaps "censored" isn't quite the word. It's true that filmmakers often check with the Motion Picture Association of America to determine what's allowed and what isn't. But the MPAA is an industry group, not a government agency, and participation is strictly voluntary, although most theaters won't show unrated films. Long Island University film history professor David Sterritt calls this a "censorship effect," and he notes that "a lot of movies are changed in order to obtain a particular rating." Nevertheless, he claims that the current movie ratings system, which dates to 1968, has been a "qualified success." "I think the studios are grateful for it," he says, "because it allows them to have reasonably unfettered access to any kind of content."

In its own way, popular music, too, has gotten used to regulation in the years since Tipper Gore's Parents' Music Resource Center started the campaign that culminated in the 2 Live Crew case. Labels routinely pluck out objectionables from singles before sending them to radio or MTV. And since Wal-Mart and Kmart don't carry stickered product, most albums exist in a clean version, free from (nearly) all sex, violence, and cursing. Goldberg does this for Kurupt and Kittie, and he estimates that clean versions account for between 10 and 20 percent of hip-hop sales. Retail monitor SoundScan doesn't track clean albums, but the FTC reports that clean versions account for from .5 percent to 22 percent of total sales. It certainly seems possible that the music industry could respond to the FTC report by marketing clean versions more aggressively.

In its September report, the FTC admitted that it doesn't really know how pop culture influences children. "Relatively few have looked directly at the effects of the products at issue in the Commission's study: motion pictures, music recordings, and electronic games," an appendix noted. There have been some studies purporting that watching violent television changes kids' attitudes toward violence, but as the commission noted, "Television research results are most relevant to movies, while their relevance to music and electronic games is less clear." Moreover, no one seems sure exactly what kind of pop culture is under fire. The FTC announced that it was studying "violent entertainment," then chose to include all top-selling parental advisory albums. Tucked away in a footnote to the September report is a startling admission: "The Commission did not attempt to evaluate which recordings contained violent lyrics."

In fact, the FTC never mentions content at all. The report is solely concerned with the design and placement of ads—it wants to make sure that ads for rated or stickered product are clearly marked as such, and it wants to get those ads out of any medium with a "substantial" under-18 audience. The FTC has declined to say exactly what "substantial" might mean, although it seems to draw the line at 35 percent. Luther Campbell himself agrees that this line has to be drawn, somewhere. "If my kids is watching Nickelodeon and a 2Pac ad comes on," he says, "I'd be on the phone, like, 'Yo, what the fuck is you trying to do?' "

Some in the rap industry don't see the proposed legislation as particularly unreasonable. Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records shrugs off the FTC report and Lieberman's bill. "This is going to be a nonissue in a week," he says. "I don't think anybody's gonna have a problem—everybody's going to comply, and they're going to comply immediately." Speaking on condition of anonymity, one major-label marketing executive said, "I really sympathize with the report. And I think the information in there will help us make decisions. OK, a lot of children are watching that? Then we need to do something different." Vibe music editor Shani Saxon agrees. "I wasn't aware that advertisers were pushing explicit lyrics on kids," she says. "If that is true, maybe that should be regulated. It seems a little irresponsible to target kids if the material isn't appropriate for them."

There's also a more practical concern. If Silverman sounds almost too eager to comply with FTC guidelines, it's because he hopes to head off more serious government intervention. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "So far this is nothing." Silverman says it's no coincidence that the Democrat-sponsored Media Marketing Accountability Act appeared in the opening months of Bush's presidency. "Democrats have no power right now," he insists. "It's hog trading, so they can get power in other areas."

Oddly enough, the record labels may be less affected by the new regulations than the media. If BET's 106th & Park attracts 10 percent too many children, the channel might decide to tinker with programming—deep-six a Lil Bow Wow video here, add a Gerald Levert video there—in order to retain its hip-hop ads. Shani Saxon insists that Vibe doesn't target children. Nevertheless, she admits that if Lieberman's bill passes, the magazine might have to be more careful. "We would just really go after the adult audience," she says. "If we were faced with that, there's no way we would do anything geared toward teens. The teen market would be the kiss of death!"

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