Are Young Kids Seeing Too Much Advertising for PG-13 Films?
I was forwarded a rather interesting article found in the Los Angeles Times earlier today that I wanted to discuss. Written by John Horn, the article Teen flicks targeted at children criticizes recent advertising campaigns that attempt to lure young kids into violent PG-13 films. It's a hard topic to talk about considering I don't have any children myself, however I think the article brings up a rather interesting topic of discussion. While I can't necessarily comment on parental concerns, I believe cinematic experiences are an important part of childhood. And what comes into question is the fine line that both Hollywood studios and toy manufacturers need to walk when developing a franchise and marketing it. While I can't cite specific instances, I don't think there is an issue with their marketing this time.
John points out that commercials for toys and branded products are luring kids into these PG-13 films with marketing that goes beyond the guidelines setup by the MPAA and FTC. The big issue here was outlined by a statement FTC Associate Director Mary Engl made in a letter addressed to the MPAA and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Since its first report [in 2000] on the marketing of violent entertainment to children, the Commission has expressed concern that target marketing of violent movies, including movies rated PG-13, directly to children constitutes an 'end run around the parental review role underlying the ratings.'" Although John brings up an interesting discussion with his article, I feel like he hasn't delved deep enough into the scenario.
The point here that I think the article is missing entirely is the idea that branded items and toys are an integral part of a child's life. It's hard for me to reference since I'm no longer a kid, but just look at Spider-Man 3. The idea of Spider-Man and that character is a fan favorite amongst youngsters. The movie is a rather violent PG-13 flick, but that doesn't mean children can't love the character and buy up as many toys, shirts, and accessories as their parents will allow. And with these other films, that character branding is really what they're trying aiming for. It's hard to make this claim, but I'd say that kids don't really need to see a movie to become a fan of a particular character.
I would be thrilled if my kid (that I don't have yet), however old he might be, became an Indiana Jones fan. Even if I had never taken him to see the new movie, if he wanted the toys and wanted to imagine himself as Indy, I'd be all for it. It's that imagination that we embrace with these branded products and toys and it's that point that I think John is missing entirely in his article. I know for certain that I am the man I am today because of the influences in my childhood related to movies. If my dad and brother hadn't shown me Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Mighty Ducks, I would have never become the geek I am today (yes, I admit it). But alas, it wasn't about the ratings when I saw those movies, it was about the idea and the character(s).
In fact, the PG-13 rating simply stands for "Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13." It doesn't specifically say that kids under 13 should not be allowed to see the movie. Instead, it's actually entirely up to the parents to determine whether their children can handle the material shown in the movie. (You can read more on the MPAA's guidelines for the rating on their website.) The PG-13 rating is much more of a warning than it is a restriction. Which is why I don't think it's up to the marketer's to have their material censored when they're simply trying to building their brand and sell products. In a situation where a young kid has a desire to see a violent PG-13 movie like The Incredible Hulk, I don't think the advertiser's are to blame, I think it's still up to the parents to make the decision.
The best part of the article is at the end, where John outlines various fights between the FTC, MPAA, and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The CCFC has been complaining publicly about the increased amount of violent PG-13 ads targeted at kids under 13. Eventually the MPAA got tired of it and told them to stop complaining and stop writing letters. "'The PG-13 rating is not a restrictive rating and admission is permitted by -- and often may be appropriate for -- children younger than 13,' MPAA general counsel Gregory Goeckner wrote, since the rating does not prohibit anyone, no matter how young, from buying a ticket. Advertising for PG-13 films, he said, 'is reviewed for appropriateness for the audience expected to view the individual ad, taking into account both the content of the ad and the content of the motion picture.'" Take that Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood!
If you're curious to read more about this topic, then make sure you read John's article on LATimes.com. Most of the considerations regarding marketing are completely out of my hands, both in regards to the decisions Hollywood makes and the decisions parents make. All I know is that sometimes some parents take complaints about violence much too far. I can't exactly say whether I would approve The Incredible Hulk for a 5-year-old, but I can tell you that I encourage as much movie-going as possible. It's not a bad thing to embrace the imaginative mind of young kids, which is why it's important they become immersed in the world of cinema. However, it's up to the parents in the end to make the final decisions.