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Does the Ad Say It All?

Studios are putting explanations next to the ratings. But the disclosures' size and the wording have raised red flags with critics.

March 11, 2001|RACHEL USLAN | Rachel Uslan is a Times staff writer

The system for advertising movies has changed since the Senate Commerce Committee admonished the entertainment industry last September, but you might have missed it without a magnifying glass.

Take a look at your paper. The ad for "Hannibal" no longer just states that the film is rated R. In a small box directly below the rating, the words "Strong gruesome violence, some nudity and language" appear, although trying to read the writing is not for the weak of sight.

The appearance of these explanations, provided by the same board that decides the ratings, are the studios' answer to the Federal Trade Commission's demand that they change their methods of advertising. Charging that the entertainment industry deliberately targeted children and teenagers with R-rated films, the FTC asked the studios to make the ratings system easier for parents to understand by including these explanations on all advertising and product packaging.

"I pledged . . . that the movie industry would treat the FTC report seriously, responsibly and with dispatch," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, in his response to Congress. So he set out 12 initiatives, one of which called for adding this explanatory box, specifically to the print ads and Web sites of films rated R for violence.

Since the FTC concluded in November that it had no legal authority to prosecute the studios, these initiatives are voluntary. But the eight major companies--Disney, DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.--have all adopted this policy, as have independents such as USA Films. The policy, however, means different things to different studios, as they each determine to what extent they carry it out.

With a follow-up study on the industry's marketing practices due in April, the studios will soon know what the FTC thinks of their initiatives. Valenti and several studio members believe their response has sufficiently answered the demands. But critics charge that the placement of the ratings explanations--even allowing for the small size of the ads--just isn't prominent enough.

"You can't read it," said Jeff McIntyre of the American Psychological Assn., who testified at the Senate hearings and was a consultant for the FTC report. "Looking at an ad, I can see the words 'sheer fun.' I can see 'PG-13' and 'winner, best picture.' But I don't see the information that's important to parents."

Valenti disagrees.

"I was worried that the words wouldn't be big enough. I wanted to make sure the studios didn't bury these ratings reasons. They didn't," he said in a recent interview.

Another concern is that the language, which Valenti calls "terse but explanatory," may be too ambiguous and in need of an update, even though it's always written with a particular film in mind. Consider "The Wedding Planner," rated PG-13 for "sexual humor," versus "Sugar & Spice," rated PG-13 for its "sex-related humor."

"By having vague nondescript descriptors, the industry is able to seemingly appease its critics and give information to parents without doing as good a job as they need to," McIntyre said.

"It's very difficult to get your message across with catchwords. It doesn't tell you to what extent violence, drug use or profanity exists," said Amir Malin, chief executive of Artisan Entertainment, which has been critical of the ratings system. "The system really needs some modifications in order to make it more . . . of a service to its customers."

Malin and the MPAA faced off in October when the company chose to release "Requiem for a Dream" unrated--and risk rejection by theaters and newspapers--rather than accept an NC-17.

As an independent company not part of the MPAA and thus not required to follow the ratings system, Artisan has chosen to include the extra box only on a "film-by-film basis, when we feel it's appropriate," Malin said.

"With [the upcoming] 'Soul Survivors,' the sexuality is not graphic in nature, the drug use is a scene of some kids smoking pot, so there's nothing that we feel we have a responsibility to convey to filmgoers," Malin said about the PG-13 rated film. "What you don't want to do is go overboard when there is sexual content of a minimal nature and highlight something that doesn't exist. If your message is deceptive in nature, simply having the message is not the answer," Malin explained.

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