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SANDY BANKS

Skills of Marketing vs. Parenting

September 17, 2000|SANDY BANKS

So the government is threatening a Hollywood crackdown, brandishing the prospect of legal sanctions to curb entertainment industry ad campaigns that market violent fare to underage kids.

Call me cynical, but I wasn't a bit surprised last week by the Federal Trade Commission's findings that movie studios, record companies and video-game makers deliberately market violent programs to teens.

The lucrative teenage audience is not about to be written off by entertainment companies, never mind that pesky rating system that places "parental advisory" labels on some music and decrees R-rated movies and M-rated video games off-limits to those under 17.

Sure, some of the marketing tactics cited in the FTC report do seem particularly crass, like the memo that directed a studio's marketing campaign to find "the elusive teen target audience and make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film," which was rated R.

But some of the gimmicks singled out for criticism seem straight out of Marketing 101, like promoting R-rated films and M-rated games on commercials during television shows popular among teens.

"The motion picture, music recording and video-game industries should stop targeting children under 17 in their marketing of products with violent content," the FTC report said.

Right. And television stations ought to stop running candy commercials before the dinner hour.

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It's laudable, this concern about the negative influence of violence in popular culture on children. And it has made great grist for the political mill.

But doesn't it seem a little disingenuous, all this finger pointing by politicians, prattling on self-righteously about how "shocked" they are by the lack of corporate responsibility? About the only responsibility most corporations recognize these days is their mission to maximize profits and keep stock prices high. Making movies--and music and video games--is about money, not morals.

Do we really expect the entertainment industry to "work with parents to protect children," as one candidate proclaimed? Isn't that like expecting candy makers to remind our children to brush and floss?

I admit that aggressive ad campaigns promoting violent and inappropriate fare don't make a parent's job easy. It would be nice if movie studios, record labels and video-game makers worked with us to create a wholesome climate for kids. But that would also be Fantasyland.

The reality is, advertising exists to peddle products. And it's not the commercials that threaten our values, it's the products they promote and that we allow our children to listen to, watch and play. A 14-year-old, after all, cannot drive himself to a theater to see "The Cell," no matter how exciting the ad is. And most 12-year-olds still rely on mom or dad for the money to buy that Eminem CD or the "Hardcore Revolution" video game.

Maybe, instead of hectoring the entertainment industry, we'd be better off talking to our children, helping them to understand that they are little more than dollar signs to an industry that shamelessly aims to bend their will, shape their desires, court their favor . . . pawns in its money-making game.

Maybe we can teach them, by example, about discipline and self-restraint, about taking responsibility for our choices, instead of giving over to some movie studio the decision about what we'll watch or do today.

And when our children beg to see that R-rated movie they read about in Teen magazine or buy that video game advertised during wrestling on TV, we can do what we've always counseled them to do when faced with pressure to make an unwise decision:

Just say "No."

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We had our own family lesson recently about the power of advertising to persuade and mislead. After weeks of anticipation, my three girls and I saw the movie "Bring It On," a charming, funny PG-13 film by Universal Studios that has been drawing teenagers to theaters in droves.

My daughters loved the movie about a suburban cheerleading team that faces off against a scrappy inner-city squad for the national cheerleading title. But there was one thing that disappointed them, one thing they didn't understand.

The commercials they'd seen hyping the film all featured the black cheerleaders prominently. But in the movie, those scenes never appeared. The black and Latina cheerleaders amounted to nothing more than caricatures, a foil for the suburban kids, whose lives and loves we saw up close.

Maybe the studios had to cut scenes from the film once it was done, I told my daughters.

But don't you put your best stuff in your commercials? Why would they cut that? my 9-year-old wondered. Not your best stuff, I explained, but the stuff that is likely to attract the most viewers.

And in fact, a marketing representative who handled the movie told The Times in a story last weekend that the studio did change its ad campaign to emphasize the black cheerleaders, once studio execs realized that by attracting black and Latino youths, the film would draw a bigger audience among kids of all colors.

If that meant the film wouldn't exactly deliver what it promised, I suppose the executives thought that was OK, as long as no one asked for their money back. Because the entertainment industry's job is to sell its products.

And it's our job to teach our children to resist manipulation, to realize when they're being used, to recognize that behind the hype, there is always somebody's hand reaching into your pocket.

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Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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