Sticker Shock

The FTC Markets Censorship as Consumer Protection

Needless to say, the 'teen market" itself isn't much impressed by the FTC's efforts. A day or two after the report was released, two dozen students are sitting in class in a local high school, picking apart the commission's logic. A girl near the front scrutinizes the list of television programs taken to task for advertising explicit albums—a list that includes MTV's Jackass and UPN's WWF Smackdown! "They're advertising this stuff on violent shows," she says. "And what is the music expressing? It's expressing violence. I mean, why not penalize the shows, too?"

A boy across the room raises his hand: "They say some of it's too violent for kids. But to me, it depends on what the kid's mindset is. If you're just a straight-arrow kid, and you listen to that type of stuff, and you don't act like an asshole, then it's fine. But if you're one of those kids that takes reality as a joke, and you think, 'Oh, I can light myself on fire like Johnny Knoxville did' . . . " His voice trails off in disgust.

This is precisely the age group that Lieberman is so concerned about—the 15- to 17-year-olds who constitute the bulk of the "children" in the audiences studied by the FTC. They've grown up watching R-rated movies and buying stickered albums, so they're used to having their pop culture carefully rated and generally unrestricted. All of them expressed dismay at the prospect of the Media Marketing Accountability Act passing into law. But they weren't worried about their own access to rap records, they were worried about the rappers' livelihoods. "It takes a long time to make a album," someone remarked, tenderly.

A tall, slender guy in the back complained that rappers were setting a bad example. "They're brainwashing little kids," he exclaimed. But he was immediately cut off by a bored-looking girl across the room: "I wanna see what happens after they actually make all these laws. I wanna see if it actually does anything."

"Does anything" to whom? The seductive thing about regulating advertising—especially for the liberals sponsoring this legislation—is that it allows you to manipulate the audience without dictating content. We don't enjoy imagining ourselves as markets, so we imagine other people as markets and wonder whether we can get them to stop buying whatever the marketers are marketing. If Americans have little sympathy for advertisers, it's because we have little patience with advertisees—rubes who are taken in by what they see on television and read in magazines. What's going on here isn't just the old demonization and romanticization of teenagers. As Lieberman and his allies have learned from the debates over cigarette regulation and campaign finance reform, Joe Camel and soft-money ads are easy targets precisely because no one will admit to being influenced by them.

Advertisements do work, of course. And as advertisers get better at identifying audiences, it seems inevitable that regulatory bodies will use that demographic information to create more precise marketing standards. Yet imposing marketing standards is a pretty indirect way to change patterns of consumption. When I asked the high school class what the record industry should do to avoid government scrutiny, a hand shot up. "Make kids show ID, like with cigarettes," said a girl who'd rolled her eyes when first told about the FTC report. "You know, that 'We Card' shit? Do that with CDs."

A snort from the other side: "They'd just buy it at a bootleg shop or something. That don't make no sense!"

The girl was unfazed. "You know what? The record label and the marketing department would be safe from getting any fines or anything. As long as they ID people, it's all clear, they're safe. Whatever other way the child gets it? That's their problem."

Related articles:

Tricia Romano gives a history of the music biz's censorship wars, and Chelsea Peretti breaks down who owns what.

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