Marketing Evil?

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A Federal Trade Commission report commissioned by Bill Clinton has blasted the entertainment industry for its “pervasive and aggressive marketing” of violence to kids between 12 and 18 years old. The immediate response by the political class was to threaten legislation unless the industry can clean up its act. Ironically, it is the Gore-Lieberman ticket which is getting the most mileage out of the report, showing that “culture war” themes can be manipulated across party lines.

The report claims that R-rated movies are being “marketed” to “children” younger than 17 by advertising on World Wide Wrestling. And 80 percent of other violence-ridden movies studied were promoted on television shows and websites followed by teens. Recording companies include market segments of people age “12-34″ in their marketing strategies. And there is the great smoking gun: a marketing memo from one film executive that seeks “the elusive teen target audience…between the ages of 12-18.”

Congress is already holding hearings, summoning industry executives to DC and putting them on the stand. The Democrats have promised new regulations to end the practice, and Hillary Clinton is already making an issue of the report in her New York campaign. Meanwhile, the Republican ticket decided not to defend free enterprise and instead tried to outflank the Democrats in their hatred of profiting from exposing kids to violence.

Because of privacy restrictions and agreements, the report doesn’t actually name the films involved, so we can’t evaluate what the FTC regards as violent and offensive. Recall that Mel Gibson’s movie “The Patriot” was considered obscene and unsuitable for ALL viewing audiences because it showed a teenager firing a musket. This same group finds old-fashioned children’s stories like “Hansel and Gretel” disgustingly violent, and books by Mark Twain offensive to all civilized standards.

Indeed, it is not really so odd that left-liberals would celebrate this report in an attempt to claim the mantle of virtue. Most of them have already jettisoned the old banners of civil liberty and free-speech rights. Far more important to them is finding some rationale for sustaining the size and power of the government’s regulatory apparatus. If the public can be bamboozled into supporting big government by way of a kulturkampf on behalf of “America’s children,” leftists will gladly do it.

Moreover, the left has always made an exception to free speech when it comes to commercial speech. They believe that the government should regulate advertising to prevent capitalists from “exploiting” supposedly weak-minded people. R.J. Reynolds, for example, is granted no right to speak on behalf of the merit of its tobacco products.

The left is always good for a session of free-enterprise bashing, no matter what the excuse. An FTC report that demonizes those who profit from the sale of videos and movies is as good a club as any. Advocating the right of the entertainment industry to hock their products however they want is considered an indefensible position.

And yet, there are many unstated assumptions behind the report that turn out to be false. One is that government has the best interests of our kids in mind, and that free enterprise does not and cannot.

It only takes a passing glance at the public-school curriculum to recognize that this isn’t true. Explicit sex education, the earlier and more polymorphous the better, has been a major priority of government schools for decades. More recently, it has been considered progressive and pro-child to hand out condoms to teens the government now tells us cannot watch movies of shootouts.

The government has been marketing its political propaganda to kids since the inception of the public-school system. Pro-Green politics and left-wing readings of American political life are the norm. Every sensible parent with a kid in public school finds himself having to de-program his child from this nonsense for years afterwards. Say what you will about the entertainment industry, it is not running tax-funded reeducation camps that consume 12 years of a child’s life.

Neither does the government want to limit its marketing of evil to kids age 7-17. The government wants them earlier and earlier. Every self-respecting left-liberal, and many Republicans too, want government funded daycare to begin soon after birth, the better to diminish the parents’ influence over the kids and enhance the government’s.

As for the marketing of violence to youth in particular, consider the government’s advertisements to join the military. The ads feature young men and women zooming around in bombers and otherwise operating weapons of mass destruction. These ads aren’t intended to get a child to put out $3 bucks for a movie rental, but to sign away his life in the service of real imperial adventures.

The FTC report and the political response to it are really part of the same ideological package. When the chairman of the FTC says he doesn’t want his agency to be “the thought police,” he is inadvertently giving the game away. The goal is to take more control away from the parents and vest it in the feds. The attack on the industry itself, which politically naive parents are likely to appreciate, is only the most viable means for doing this.

But wouldn’t it be okay if the FTC simply outlawed the “marketing” of R-rated movies to kids? Well, this idea, that the government understands the intentions behind every marketing decision, is slippery. The FDA decided that Camel cigarettes were being marketed to kids because its logo featured a cartoon character, for example. Once the government has the power to declare what group is and isn’t being targeted, the game is over.

For example, it is absurd that the FTC concludes that an ad on World Wide Wrestling constitutes marketing to kids. Do adults not watch these shows? What percentage of the audience can be under the age of 18 before the government decides what commercials can and cannot be aired? If there is the slightest chance that teenagers will be watching, will the government be given veto power over every commercial? In its discussion of magazine ads, the report uses words like a “majority” (50 percent plus 1) and “substantial” (left undefined) teen readership.

Another implicit assumption is that the marketing plans of ad agencies always work. This is also ridiculous. The glory of Wagner operas could be the main message of every issue of Seventeen without affecting the sales of tickets to the Met. And while marketing can be a great help in getting the word out, limiting the promotion of rock-’em-sock-’em video games to National Geographic isn’t going to keep kids from liking them. Deterministic relationships between promotion and sales do not exist in human affairs.

And, in fact, the entertainment industry is not being accused of creating an artificial demand for products but rather catering to a demand that already exists. In other words, it is being accused of doing what free enterprise does best: getting goods and services to those who want them. From the perspective of any business, the goal is to find the market segment most interested in the product.

You may say a 16-year-old kid shouldn’t want to watch gory shootouts, but then you are dealing with the complicated interplay between moral precepts and adolescent impulses-territory only parents have the competence to navigate. It’s not enough to say that kids shouldn’t watch violent things. Maybe Dunkin’ Donuts shouldn’t be permitted to market to fat people, or Budweiser to sell to drunks, or Gateway to sell laptops to workaholics, or Makeup.com to sell to promiscuous women, or Amazon.com to grant “one-click” ordering to fanatic readers like me.

Unless we are prepared to erect a totalitarian state with the power to approve or disapprove every cultural message we encounter (which not even Mao’s China could pull off), we must let business be free to promote its wares in the most profitable way.

Yes, parents face huge problems in keeping their children free of corruption. That is true now, and it has been true in every age. Now, as always, it is a huge error to turn this job over to the state, the greatest corrupter of youth ever known.

In a free society, it is the job of parents, not regulators and politicians, to guard what influences their kids. Now that the left has taken up the banner of decency in a new and twisted episode of the culture wars of the 1990s, it is more important than ever for the rest of us to remember that.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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