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Should Game Ads Be Censored?

It's not just mature rated games that are being targeted by concerned parties such as the Parents Television Council. It's their advertising, too

In the post-modern economy, information is the most valuable commodity. Almost as important as (and sometimes more important than) having a quality product is having people know about your product and associating a positive image with that product. Naturally, the best way to get the word out about your company and the product(s) it makes is advertising.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that commercials have become the latest target by those looking to keep mature rated titles out of the hands of children. After all, if children never hear about these "M" rated titles, they're obviously not going purchase them. Certain organizations have taken these thoughts to heart, and have tried to have ads for "M" rated banned from public transit systems.

We talked with one of the concerned organization members (Gavin McKiernan, national grassroots director for the Parents Television Council) about the latest campaign in Denver, comparisons between various types of media and the ESRB.

Anti-transit ad campaign derailed in Denver

Late last year, campaigns in Boston and Portland to ban ads for mature titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories were successful. As reported by Kotaku, those bans were followed up by a campaign—spearheaded earlier this year by the Parents Television Council and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood—to have Denver's Regional Transportation District enact a similar measure. Although the attempted ban ultimately proved unsuccessful, McKiernan remains adamantly against ads for mature games being displayed in public.

"It's marketing [mature games] to kids, that's our main issue. There's a reason why the [game companies] buy these ads; they're effective. Billions of dollars are spent each year so they can get the message out to every member of the buying population," said McKiernan. "We've developed rules over the years to decide which products to target. Sonic the Hedgehog is not the sort of thing we'd be railing against, for instance."

"We have a general video game campaign, and this is a part of the broader campaign to keep adult games out of the hands of kids. We're trying to give notice to this and push various forms of legislation," he continued. "Basically, we're asking that they not allow ads for mature and adult related games to be shown on public transit. You have a large young audience on the bus and trains and we don't want them to see ads for these games that are unfortunately easy to obtain.

"To be honest, we were very surprised by the decision in Denver. We seemed to have support on the board so we were shocked by the turnaround, especially after they had a closed door session with their lawyers. We are figuring out what we need to do to not have something like this happen again. So we don't have any sort of plans along this line moving forward. We'll look at what went wrong and right and reevaluate our strategy."

Shot across the bow

One question that immediately came to our minds and, in fact, that McKiernan anticipated was: Why target video game ads and not try to ban ads for mature TV shows and movies? "It's difficult [for kids] to get into an R-rated movie. It's not a legal requirement to be sure, but studies have found that it's difficult for them to gain entrance into R-rated movies," he said. "With games it hasn't been the case; secret shoppers have shown that that kids can consistently buy 'M' rated game titles. We find generally that the big retail stores are more compliant, but there's still occasional problems [varying from location to location]. Our studies have turned up odd facts too—like we found that people in San Francisco had good compliance, but in Southern Illinois it was low, and you might think it'd be the other way around."

As for TV shows, he stated, "The difficulty with doing this for TV shows, like Desperate Housewives is that it's difficult to craft a system similar to the ESRB. The TV ratings system is utterly flawed, and we're actually releasing a study showing that the system is broken. It boils down to this: stations rate their own programming, so it's like the fox guarding the hen house. We'd have to be going show by show, and [our findings would] be hard to demonstrate to an outside party. Comparatively, the ESRB gets more things right than it gets wrong. Most of the time it has the right ratings for the appropriate games."

It's worth noting that, while GTA: Vice City Stories certainly contains mature subject matter, the transit ads themselves are quite tame in comparison. When asked about ad content, McKiernan responded, "Our mission is to keep children from being exposed to nudity, language and violence. The content of ads can be problematic, but it's not something we've gone after. It's something we'd consider, however, and it's certainly something we're concerned with on TV and movies.

"We're looking at the issue of the ads on TV, but we don't have any tactics going on right now. Even if you have some family friendly programming on TV, like American Idol or baseball, [an inappropriate ad] comes up, like a Viagra ad or something along those lines. The problem is there's no warning at all and the content of commercials seems to be getting worse and worse. So we're constantly looking at how we're going to address that."

"We've supported legislation on the state and federal level addressing things like ads for mature games. We feel it gets misrepresented that we want to impose our opinion on others; adults can choose the mediums that they want, but our society sees fit to limit children's access to mature content in order to protect them. While the ESRB touts some nice things, it doesn't have any teeth behind it. The ESRB wants voluntary compliance and we'd love voluntary compliance, but we live in the real world. We want to see more enforcement," he concluded.

ESRB's response

We could not help but be puzzled at McKiernan's praise of the ESRB on one hand and criticism of it on the other. Regardless, when queried for a response on the PTC's statements, the ESRB responded by calmly pointing to their mission statement, which says the ratings are designed to "provide consumers, especially parents, with reliable and valuable information about the age suitability and content of computer and video games so they can make informed purchase decisions." In other words, the ratings and the ESRB are an information tool for parents to choose to use if they see fit, not a mandatory enforcement policy. At the same time, the ESRB Retail Council (ERC) works with retailers to "support ratings education and store policy enforcement programs."

"The ESRB's Advertising Review Council (ARC) imposes guidelines that restrict potentially offensive content in video game advertisements, as well as prohibit inappropriate target marketing of games rated M for Mature," ESRB president Patricia Vance commented to us. "Based on the overwhelmingly adult demographic profile of mass transit riders, as with many other forms of outdoor and mass media, it's clear that ads in such venues would not be an efficient nor particularly effective means of reaching children. The Federal Trade Commission has recognized the effectiveness with which ESRB enforces the ARC guidelines, and we will continue to ensure that the video game industry markets its products appropriately and responsibly."

McKiernan's argument that restriction of R-rated movies to children is somehow much greater than voluntary enforcement of the ESRB ratings at retail doesn't seem to hold much weight either. A recent FTC study seemed to fly in the face of McKiernan's claims. The industry has made enormous strides within the past few years, with only 42% of children able to purchase "M" rated titles (compared to 39% purchasing theater tickets and 71% purchasing DVD movies). A vast majority of parents also showed that they are aware of the ESRB's ratings and most use it when purchasing games for their children. With First Amendment rights (hopefully) protecting the entertainment industry from federal regulation, better education and voluntary carding should be the focus of all parties moving forward.

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