When Movies Become 'Product'

Showing the public relations savvy we expect from media moguls, the heads of the Hollywood studios declined to testify last month when the Senate Commerce Committee held hearings on "marketing violence to children." So when television reported the story, viewers saw movie clips of Keanu Reeves facing off against evil, rather than a tape of an anonymous executive squirming in the witness chair. Films remained works of art, protected by the First Amendment, rather than mere corporate products to be regulated at Washington's whim.

The distinction didn't last. At the hearings, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, hinted of things to come: "Joe Camel has, sadly, not gone away. He's gone into the entertainment business."

The Senator threatened the possibility of asking the Federal Trade Commission "to see if the entertainment industry is engaging in false advertising or unfair trade practices."

Before Congress could act, President Clinton delivered -- much to the shock of his loyal supporters in Hollywood. He ordered an F.T.C. inquiry into "whether and how video game, motion picture and recording industries market to children violent and other material rated for adults." It will consider, for instance, whether these businesses advertise in media with large youth audiences and whether they adequately enforce existing, supposedly voluntary, rating systems.

The investigation will cost the taxpayers about $1 million. It will cost its targets millions more.

The F.T.C. probe is not just the usual telegenic show trial, good for a few headlines. The commission will exercise de facto subpoena power, demanding proprietary memos, private E-mail and internal marketing studies.

The inquiry will not end when the cameras go away. It will grind on, digging for dirt until it finds some. As Mr. Lieberman suggested, the model is the tobacco industry -- the most demonized business in America.

This approach depends on defining movies not as stories or images but as products -- which, of course, they are. It is the perfect campaign for an Administration working to restore the pre-Reagan punch of regulatory agencies.

By attacking free markets, the Clinton Administration can challenge free speech without abandoning its liberal image. "Many in the entertainment industry haven't grasped the distinction between marketing and creative license," an unnamed White House official told The Los Angeles Times.

Regulating creativity is bad; regulating marketing is O.K. The President is embracing virtue czar William Bennett's formulation that "this is predatory capitalism."

Just as Mr. Bennett's culture war means conservatives must break with free markets, so President Clinton's regulatory assault means liberals must abandon free speech. The probe looks like business regulation, but the real goal is content restriction.

After all, the inquiry makes little sense in the context of the F.T.C.'s mission. The agency is supposed to thwart "consumer injury," which suggests unhappy customers. But the tens of millions of people who bought tickets to "The Matrix" aren't complaining. The Liebermans, Bennetts and Clintons, who think moviegoers shouldn't have bought those tickets, are.

Yet movie advertisements aren't deceptive. Trailers for action movies show gunfire and explosions. Those for horror movies are scary. Nobody who saw an advertisement for "I Know What You Did Last Summer" expected a romantic comedy.

Supreme Court precedent allows the F.T.C. to regulate nondeceptive advertising as "unfair" only if it violates a public policy well established in law. But the movie rating system is voluntary. The First Amendment prohibits the sort of content restrictions that would inevitably come with a mandatory system.

The F.T.C. probe punishes Hollywood for making products that powerful people think are immoral. It sets a dangerous precedent for both free speech and consumer choice.

Culture warriors call movies they dislike "cultural pollution" -- the toxic waste of greedy corporations. They scoff at the notion that such "pollution" is difficult to identify and assume their judgments are universally shared. "Can you not distinguish between 'Casino' and 'Macbeth,' or 'Casino' and 'Braveheart,' or 'The Basketball Diaries' and 'Clear and Present Danger'?" Mr. Bennett rhetorically asked the Senate committee. "I can make that distinction." His eagerness is chilling.

Regulatory agencies don't let consumers make their own judgments about pollution. They simply ban it. The F.T.C. is not the Cultural Protection Agency, but involving it does change the terms of the debate. By treating moviegoers as victims of corporate malfeasance, rather than willing consumers of art, the Clinton Administration has taken a significant step toward transforming Keanu Reeves into Joe Camel.

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