License to shill

Times Staff Writer

If YOUR kids simply must watch the Cartoon Network, they will be overwhelmed with ads for all kinds of tooth-rotting junk, including Pop Tarts, Lucky Charms, Reese’s Puffs and some concoction called Froot Loops Cereal Straws. But critics say there’s a different pediatric health risk on the cable channel -- promotions tied to violent, PG-13-rated movies.

The ultimate financial success for almost all summer films, especially those rated PG-13, is determined by young ticket buyers. If school-age kids show up in droves, you’ve got a blockbuster like “Iron Man” or the new “Indiana Jones” sequel. If they stay away, you’re stuck with a misfire such as “Speed Racer.” The massive theatrical grosses for every one of last summer’s top five hits -- including “Transformers” and “Spider-Man 3" -- were driven by kids.

In courting young fans, though, some studios -- and their licensing partners in particular -- are becoming so aggressive in their marketing of PG-13 titles to children of all ages that the Federal Trade Commission, as well as an advertising watchdog concern and one children’s advocacy organization, have all taken notice.

While studios can’t sell R-rated movies directly to young kids, they have more flexibility -- but not total freedom -- in how they market PG-13 releases to children, with some limitations on when certain ads can and can’t run. So instead of directly pitching the violent movies straight to little children, the studios are using a more subtle tactic: They let their promotional partners do their bidding through licensed toys and snacks.


So if your 4-year-old suddenly says he has to see “The Incredible Hulk” -- rated PG-13 in part for “sequences of intense action violence” and “some frightening sci-fi images” -- it could be that he’s seen a Hulk Airheads candy spot running in the middle of the morning on Cartoon Network’s “Robotboy.”

Unlike restrictions by the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon prohibiting Universal Pictures from directly advertising the PG-13-rated “Hulk” before 5 p.m., there are no apparent rules keeping Perfetti Van Melle from flogging its Airheads confection (“Turns your tongue green!”) or Hasbro from selling its Hulk Smash Hands (whose ad, like the Airheads spot, includes a quick clip from the movie) in the middle of the day.

While those “Hulk” toy ads, and similar promotions for “Indiana Jones” Legos and a toy whip, don’t directly promote the film’s release date, other movie spots do.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood found that Burger King’s “Iron Man” ads carrying the film’s release date appeared in a daytime broadcast of Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants,” and a Paramount advertisement for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (rated PG-13 for “adventure violence and scary images”) was shown alongside Nickelodeon’s “Fairly Odd Parents” at 3:30 p.m.

“Parents say, ‘I thought, “How bad could [the movie] be because they have all these toys?” ’ " says Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “And then they take their 5-year-old to ‘Iron Man,’ and there are extended scenes of torture.”

Universal and Marvel Studios, which made both “Iron Man” and the upcoming “The Incredible Hulk,” declined to comment. Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore said in a statement: “Paramount has been and will continue to be committed to advertising responsibly to children. Our goal is to ensure parents have the information they need to make appropriate decisions and choices for their families. So much so, our film advertising is reviewed by the MPAA’s advertising bureau for the appropriateness of ads and ad placements, and we carefully select our promotional partners with whom we rely on to be equally sensitive to parental concerns.”

There ARE new rules controlling how R-rated movies, explicit video games and music with racy lyrics can (and mostly can’t) be sold to children, the result of 2000 hearings in the U.S. Senate. But the directives are much vaguer when it comes to PG-13 movies, which some parents feel are just as violent as R-rated movies were a decade ago.

The Children’s Advertising Review Unit is an ad agency trade group charged with industry self-regulation in marketing aimed at kids. This March, CARU and the Motion Picture Assn. of America entered into an agreement in which the review unit will notify the MPAA if advertisements for films rated PG-13, R or NC-17 are “primarily directed to children under 12.”

So far, CARU has flagged Paramount Pictures for two possible violations, saying the studio intentionally ran ads for “Iron Man” during unspecified children’s programming hours and did the same with “Drillbit Taylor,” a March release rated PG-13 for “crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity.”

But the consequences of such transgressions appear negligible and include requiring the studio to pull the disputed ads. In the case of “Drillbit Taylor,” the organization’s inquiry was filed on April 17, a month after the ad ran and long after the film’s TV campaign was mostly wrapped up. The MPAA says it disagreed with the group’s findings and believed the “Drillbit Taylor” and “Iron Man” ads were appropriately placed.

“The enforcement is totally lacking,” says Linn. “By the time it gets back to the MPAA, the damage is already done. They can’t preempt anything.”

The FTC, on the other hand, has a lot more regulatory clout. Even though the commission has been largely willing to let the market police itself under President George W. Bush, the FTC’s division of advertising practices has indicated surprising unhappiness with Hollywood’s recent conduct.

In a January letter responding to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s complaints about Paramount’s expansive marketing effort of the PG-13 “Transformers” to children, FTC Associate Director Mary Engle suggested the studios were playing fast and loose with their own rules.

“Given [the PG-13 rating’s] strong admonition to parents, the current policy of allowing marketing of PG-13 movies directly to a substantial number of children under the age of 13, without express guidelines or restrictions, could well be inconsistent with the rating,” Engle wrote in a letter sent to Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and copied to the MPAA.

Engle also noted that the current marketing efforts were similar to earlier campaigns that the FTC considered problematic. “Since its first report [in 2000] on the marketing of violent entertainment to children, the Commission has expressed concern that target marketing of violent movies, including movies rated PG-13, directly to children constitutes an ‘end run around the parental review role underlying the ratings.’ ”

The FTC’s letter said that the film industry should “assess its current approach” and consider restricting advertising for PG-13 movies in media popular with younger children.

The MPAA has shown little public interest in taking up the FTC’s suggestions.

In a May 16 letter copied to the FTC and the National Assn. of Theater Owners, the MPAA told the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to stop complaining about PG-13 movie advertising and cease its letter-writing effort.

“The PG-13 rating is not a restrictive rating and admission is permitted by -- and often may be appropriate for -- children younger than 13,” MPAA general counsel Gregory Goeckner wrote, since the rating does not prohibit anyone, no matter how young, from buying a ticket. Advertising for PG-13 films, he said, “is reviewed for appropriateness for the audience expected to view the individual ad, taking into account both the content of the ad and the content of the motion picture.”

But the MPAA says it does not review the flood of ads for movie-related toys, candy and fast food, which are clearly calculated to drive kiddie interest in attending the often violent films.

So, for the time being, expect rug rats to keep asking to see movies far more grown-up than “The Rugrats Movie.”