Minor Problem


"Sexuality, Some Drug Use and Brief Violence." It may sound like a low-rent night on the town, but it's actually part of the warning accompanying ads for Lucky Numbers, the new comedy starring John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow.

Chastened by public criticism of their marketing practices, the big studios have started offering brief explanations for the ratings carried by their films. Most movie ads now list potentially objectionable elements in the rating box itself or direct readers to a Web site ( where they can find the same sort of description.

The added information is supposed to help parents decide whether a given film is appropriate for their children. But any adult who can't figure out that a Jackie Chan movie is apt to include "Violent Content," that The Exorcist features "Disturbing Images," or that The Ladies' Man "Contains Sexual Content and Language" may be beyond help.

Then, too, the new fine print could tip off teenagers that a movie they otherwise would not be interested in is worth sneaking into. Nothing attracts adolescent attention quite like warnings about "nudity" and "sexuality."

Still, there may be some situations where the rating explanations will be useful to parents, if only to stimulate further research. By contrast, Hollywood's other major attempt to mollify its critics–a promise to avoid marketing adult-oriented films to teenagers–is entirely symbolic.

It's possible to stop using minors in focus groups and test screenings for R-rated movies, but it's not possible to stop them from seeing ads for those movies. This is simply because the media that reach adults–billboards, newspapers, magazines, radio, and especially TV–also reach children.

Some movie studios want to pretend that they can nevertheless shield young eyes and ears from previews for movies their parents might not approve of. Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, for instance, say they will not advertise R-rated movies on TV shows for which 35 percent or more of the audience is under 17.

Since children's channels such as Nickleodeon already refuse to carry commercials for R-rated movies, that pledge is expected to have almost no impact on ad placement, with the possible exception of some shows on the music channels. If the cutoff were set significantly lower, however, the studios would be sacrificing too many adults.

Before it goes further down this road, Hollywood may want to consider the mistakes made by another industry charged with corruption of minors. Beginning in 1969, when they agreed to a ban on TV and radio commercials, the tobacco companies seemed to accept the premise that teenagers shouldn't be exposed to their ads; the logical implication, which cigarette makers have been resisting ever since, was that the ads should be completely eliminated.

Now cigarette billboards are history, and the tobacco companies are quibbling over which magazines it's OK to advertise in. Philip Morris has promised not to run ads in magazines if more than 15 percent or more than 2 million of their readers are teenagers.

Unlike the standard set by Fox and Warner, this one has a substantial impact, covering 22 of 40 major magazines in a recent survey by Simmons Market Research Bureau. The  forbidden titles include many that are not usually thought of as teen magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Popular Science, Motor Trend, Field & Stream, and Reader's Digest.

Like the tobacco industry's ad restrictions, Hollywood's gestures of restraint are officially voluntary, but they are aimed at heading off government regulation. The message coming from Washington is: Censor yourselves, or we'll do it for you.

The fallacy at the heart of that message is the idea that speech must be restricted because it might persuade teenagers to behave in ways adults don't like. Leaving aside the question of what impact the ads actually have (it's easier to interest someone in a movie than it is to turn him into a smoker), there are alternatives to censorship: To discourage teenagers from smoking, don't sell them cigarettes; to keep them from watching R-rated movies, don't let them into the theater.

It's too late for the tobacco industry to stand up for freedom of speech, but it's not too late for Hollywood, which has a lot more at stake. You don't need the First Amendment to make a cigarette.