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A barrage of movie ads is headed your kids' way

 

Bob Condor

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

May 25, 2008
 

WHILE MEMORIAL DAY marks picnics and campouts for many of us -- maybe an impromptu game of softball or volleyball too -- Hollywood is gearing up for the summer blockbuster season.

That worries Josh Golin and his Harvard-based colleagues who manage the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) coalition at the university's Judge Baker Children's Center. Golin figures that where there are summer blockbusters, television commercials that run during children's TV programming are sure to precede.

And he would be right.

The CCFC canvassed children's TV programs in early May. It discovered ads for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"-themed Lunchables and Frosted Flakes on Nickelodeon on May 10. Earlier in the month, CCFC noted network and cable children's shows were "flooded with ads for 'Iron Man' and ads for toys linked to the movie." Golin said there was a Burger King "Iron Man" kids meal for children as young as 3.

Problem: "Iron Man" is rated PG-13. Same for the new "Indiana Jones" flick.

And that's before introducing the debate among researchers about whether violent movies and other media (most notably, Internet violent content is exploding) lead to unhealthy behavior among those kids 13 and up who see the movie -- or the preteens and other youngsters who attend.

In recent months, researchers from the University of Michigan and Iowa State University have published exhaustive studies showing a direct cause-and-effect relationship between media violence and youth aggression and other behavior problems. In contrast, behavioral scientists at the University of Utah and Texas State University have countered with papers questioning the methodology of media violence research and whether there is a direct connection to be made.

Susan Linn is a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School. She has written a new book, "The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World (New Press, $24.95), which fits in nicely with her role as director of the CCFC. She said allowing film companies and studios to "relentlessly market PG-13 movies to young children" undermines what she calls an already flawed rating system.

"The PG-13 rating states that parents should be 'strongly cautioned' that 'material may be inappropriate for children under 13,' but the film industry is doing everything and anything to ensure that violence-packed movies are the talk of elementary and preschool playgrounds," said Linn, a ventriloquist who pioneered the use of puppetry in children's play therapy and was mentored by the late Fred Rogers of PBS fame.

The CCFC previously has flagged this questionable connection between PG-13 films and kid's advertising and toys. In January, responding to a CCFC complaint -- co-filed by about 20 children's advocacy groups around the country -- the Federal Trade Commission urged the Motion Picture Association of America to develop "explicit" and "objective" policy to make sure movies are not marketed to children not recommended to see the movie.

Not surprisingly, the movie industry trade group hasn't responded with any specific criteria. The MPAA assures it reviews marketing plans for every PG-13 movies, but Golin said the ad reviews are for content only and not what is age-appropriate as it relates to the movie. It is not difficult to surmise that kids who see, say, "Iron Man" toys, will be asking their parents to see the movie. And if they fail in getting into movie theaters, the asking will no doubt resume when the video is released.

Here's what further worries Golin. He assumes two summer blockbusters, "The Incredible Hulk" (late June release date) and "The Dark Knight" (mid-July), will translate to advertising for the movies and related toys. "Hulk" is not yet rated but the 2003 version of the comic book character was PG-13, while "Dark Knight" has been rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of violence and some menace," Golin said.

What's more, the CCFC reports that "Hulk" has 260 new toys, many aimed at kids 3 and younger, while "Dark Knight" has a whopping 950 toys, another 4,000 merchandising and product promotions with General Mills and Hershey's.

The CCFC has started a letter-writing campaign that makes it easy for parents and others to write to the motion picture association. Visit commercialfreechildhood.orgfor more details.

Another organization, Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment or TRUCE, has posted an impressive number of suggestions for kids, parents, teachers and communities to practice greater awareness of violent movie content truceteachers.org/mediaviolence.html). One vital idea is watching movies with kids. Better yet, screen it yourself first to decide if your child should even watch it. Then rather than a post-movie lecture, make it possible for your family to talk openly the movie, including any fears and misconceptions.

Ultimately, it's up to parents to decide if a PG-13 movie is OK for their children -- and that's exactly how the MPAA likes it. My take? I'll leave parents with a 2007 study conducted by Kennesaw State University (Acworth, Ga.) researcher Philip Aust. He conducted a content analysis of 24, G-rated -- repeat G-rated -- animated full-length feature films released between 1937 and 2000. He found 464 violent incidents (defined by research standards) in the 24 films, plus 564 weapons used in these incidents. When categorized by decade, the films grew progressively violent as Disney and moviegoers approached the 21st century.
 

 

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