Sticker Shock


“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.”

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!”

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.