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Marketing Violence in the Senate
By Justin Hall
Updated September 20, 2000 11:55 PM PST

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"Hotshot marketing people working for entertainment companies have encouraged kids to defy their parents. They deliberately set out to create lust in tender children for movies, music and video games that had been rated for mature audiences only. When tender minds are exposed to a constant barrage of gun battles and obscene gore, they learn to kill. So the entertainment industry is training legions of child soldiers to wage war on their schools and communities, all to serve their own greed, because murder sells."

If that sounds like something you believe, you could have a good career in the United States Senate. Media violence is a hot topic this election year; after recent shootings in well-heeled schools, politicians are rushing to demand accountability from the entertainment industry. But behind their statements and demands, there was little threat of censorship.

The entertainment industry has already agreed with the government that there is some violence in media that is bad for children; they set up ratings systems to prevent kids from seeing things they shouldn't. Now they are being asked to abide by their own ratings in their marketing campaigns, before the government steps in to enforce the content ratings as law -- an outcome no one seems to want.

Senator Lieberman On Wednesday the Senate Commerce Committee convened a hearing on Marketing Violence to Children to argue that the entertainment industry is not abiding by its own voluntary ratings systems. Some high-profile personalities were in the house, including former Republican presidential candidate Arizona Senator John McCain, hosting the hearings, Democratic vice presidential candidate and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Lynne Cheney, wife of GOP vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney. Gamers.com was on hand with bomb-sniffing dogs and an unusual number of press people who left immediately after Lieberman finished reading from a statement you can download off the Web.

The genesis for this hullabaloo was a Federal Trade Commission report: Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children. The report determined that the entertainment industry had rated certain films, albums and video game products suitable for mature audiences, and had then marketed those mature products to kids.

The most notable examples were from the film industry, where film studios had convened focus groups of twelve-year-olds to test R-rated movies. All three industries had marketing plans to push mature products on Nickelodeon and other kid-centric media outlets.

Senators sitting The senators occasionally waved this report around and talked about violence in the media, but they seemed more concerned with the content of violent media rather than the marketing of that media. The senate hearing was scheduled for three hours in the morning; it lasted six hours into the afternoon.

The first two hours were spent listening to senators and congressmen read from their prepared statements. They lined up to add their rhetoric to the record -- most registering righteous indignation about the crimes perpetrated by the entertainment industry on the children of our nation.

They each talked at length of their experience raising four to eight kids. They talked about "the rising tide of youth violence" (Bryan) inspired by the lyrics of Eminem. They talked about members of the media industry "who want children to lose their innocence." (Ashcroft)

They spoke out against members of the entertainment industry "peddling ... virtual carnage and smut specifically to minors." (Kohl). Some even hinted that the entertainment industry should be subject to the same scrutiny and punishment as the tobacco industry has been for marketing to children.

Some pointed out attempts by the gun industry to market to children. A few mentioned that the disproportionately high murder rates for juveniles enjoyed by the United States might have more to do with widespread access to handguns and a lack of social support for working parents.

Various representatives stood up for their causes -- "My bill would prevent this senseless violence with more V-Chip technology," "Limiting access to handguns will curb the violence in our society," "Canada doesn't have the problems that we have because they have a law like the Safe Harbor law I've proposed," "I propose we declare media violence obscene and pass laws against it."

Mostly they shared their sentiments and departed. Dozens of reporters, lobbyists, spectators and witnesses -- together we sat before a dais with a large number of big empty leather chairs on it. Senators would walk in and out, occasionally sit down, read a statement, ask a few questions, get up and leave.

Senator John McCain For all the grandstanding and absenteeism, two senators persisted throughout the day. Firebrand John McCain was the chairman, hosting the hearing with humor and an air of paternal wisdom. While he professed an eagerness for dialogue, inviting the panelists to interrupt him, he seldom listened to their responses before issuing his own proclamations in reply. Each time one of the panelists mentioned that none of the target market had been invited (there were no video gamers, Eminem fans, or twelve-year-olds with a taste for ultraviolence on any of the panels), McCain would point out that they couldn't afford the $500,000 soft money donation required to have a vote in Washington. That was his "special interests in government" axe to grind; point of fact, all they required was an invitation from the committee to speak. I was going to offer myself as a gamer, but at twenty-five I felt too old to share any thick enthusiasm for Marshall Mathers [Eminem].

Senator Brownback Republican Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas beseeched the media makers assembled to stop publishing some of this material, like a parent chastising naughty children: "Stop making hyper-violent entertainment which glamorizes cruelty, degrades women, and trivializes abuse. And stop marketing such vile stuff to kids. Just stop it. You don't need to do it, it is morally wrong to do it, and you are hurting kids. So just stop."

In those rare moments when the Commerce Committee stayed tightly focused on the marketing of violent media to young people, the video games industry neatly sidestepped its close scrutiny for two reasons.

One, the senators and their staffs weren't very hip to the world of video games. Since the attention paid to thoroughly violent titles like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat in the mid-1990s, there's been no particular violent video game that has been in the spotlight. The recent first-person shooter Soldier of Fortune might come close since it was banned in British Columbia, but Soldier of Fortune as a game has been nowhere near as popular or widespread as Eminem's albums.

Two, being a young industry, video games were the last of the three popular media to develop any kind of parental advisory or rating system. Accordingly, their system is the most comprehensive and thorough. The criticisms leveled at the ratings systems for the other industries had been largely resolved by the ESRB (The Entertainment Software Rating Board).

Back in September of last year, prior to this hearing and the issuance of the FTC report, the ESRB had established an Advertising Review Council which reviews video game marketing for propriety. As John McCain said in his opening statement, "To their credit, the video game industry has the most comprehensive and informative labeling system. ... Unfortunately this system did not prevent marketing to kids."

Peter Moore Sega's Peter Moore pointed out that recently the SegaNet advertisments had been aired without a voiceover explaining the "E rating" and they had pulled the ads to add the voiceover to keep up with ESRB game-rating regulations.

Moore took issue with the report listing video game company advertising on shows like "The Simpsons," "X-Files" and "Baywatch" as "strongly suggesting that children under 17 were being targeted." As he said about gaming magazines, "It is neither practical nor fair to imply that we should bypass advertising media targeted to the gaming enthusiast simply because of the possibility of spillage to a younger demographic."

The stakes are high here, because if video game companies can no longer market T (teen) or M (mature) games in magazines such as GamePro, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Expert Gamer, Tips and Tricks and The Unofficial PlayStation Magazine (all magazines cited by the FTC as having a majority under-17 readership), then those magazines could shrink, and the industry itself could find it harder to make successful mature products.

Greg Fischbach, left, Peter Moore, right Greg Fischbach from Acclaim Entertainment sounded a more conciliatory tone, saying, "We need to do more. We, as publishers, need to take steps to ensure that we comply with the established code of conduct, including the antitargeting provisions and we definitely need to work further to elevate parents' awareness and understanding of the ratings system. It's an ongoing process, and I believe we are all committed to improving it."

In an attempt to press him, Senator Brownback held aloft an Acclaim title, ECW Hardcore Wrestling, rated M, and an ECW wrestling action figure which was recommended for ages four and up on its packaging. For Brownback, this was an example of the questionable cross-marketing practiced by the industry -- pushing adult games with children's toys. Fischbach pointedly corrected the senator: Acclaim had only licensed the rights to use ECW wrestling characters for their game, just like the toy-manufacturing company. The two products were not tied in any direct way, and you could tell by looking at the toy packaging; Senator Brownback didn't seem to have done that.

Otherwise the bulk of the attacks were reserved for music industry representatives and Jack Valenti from the MPAA, representing the film industry. Large printed cardboard placards with lyrics to "Kill You" by Eminem and "Bitch Niggaz" by Dr. Dre were posted in the Senate Chamber to illustrate the excesses of the modern music industry. The senators waxed prolific; they couldn't believe the new heights of violence and perversity reached by these artists. I felt as though I could have been in a senate chamber in the 1950s.

For the film industry, the senators had much scorn. Since not a single invited film industry executive chose to show, the senators took every opportunity possible to deride and shame the absent executives for their "hubris."

Later, Jack Valenti defended the absent executives by arguing that you can't invite VIP heads of film studios to meetings with only a week's notice. Tough-talking John McCain announced that he's giving them two weeks notice to show up to another hearing, focusing exclusively on marketing violent films to young people.

Doug Lowenstein As a gamer I felt that there was a large cultural disjunction between myself and the senators. A panel of middle-aged and elderly white guys talked at length about the difficulties of parenting and the horrors in modern music. It's clear that none of them have ever enjoyed the chance to get online and have a good frag. None of them have ever spent a long night past work hours, huddled over their computer trying to save a kingdom. They conveyed the air of someone who would baby-sit their young grandchildren, sitting back on a couch talking at length at how silly and dangerous video games are, never grabbing a controller and trying to out-kart race the kids.

They grew up before video games, some before widespread TV. Most of them convey the feeling of boys raised hunting and fishing; boys with access to open land. For better or worse, kids today don't have access to so many outdoor pursuits. Many young people now socialize through computers. They learn some of what it is to win and to lose and to be a part of a team through video games. While some violence may be excessive for today's young folk, these kids are by and large extremely media literate. The vast majority of kids know how to have a good time playing a game, and then they log off and make nice with their school buddies.

Towards the end of a marathon day, the blindingly articulate Dr. Michael Eric Dyson of DePaul University pointed out that young people in minority communities have been targets of violence for years without the Senate convening hearings on the subject.

So as long as the crazy white kids keep their guns out of school and the media adheres to its own ratings policies, then we shouldn't have to weather another hearing where senators can again decry the sorry state of American youth culture for some time to come.

Additional Reading:
$enate Kommerce Kommittee Killfest - the Gamers.com Remix - read about this Senate hearing as it really happened.
Blood & Thunder by Sandy Brundage -- A Gamers.com exclusive in-depth analysis of the debate over violence in video games.
Hearings of the Commerce Committee -- Scroll down this page to find the hearing on "Marketing Violence to Children" and you can watch all six hours of the hearing on real video, in addition to reading many of the prepared statements in PDF format!

Justin Hall
E-mail Justin


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