Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Transformers, More Than Meets The Eye

Watching Saturday morning cartoons a couple of weekends ago, I was surprised at the number of times I saw trailers for summer action hero blockbusters -- Transformers and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- as well as ads for related merchandise (especially toys, of course) and promotions. The violent themes and high levels of action featured in the trailers made me wonder (well, ok, doubt) whether they fell within the film industries' various self-regulatory guidelines not to market to kids under the age established by the film's rating. As it turns out, however, my concerns were unfounded -- the BC Film Classification has given both films a PG-rating (apparently, Fantastic Four even got a "G" rating in Quebec)...which is good, considering that the films are based on popular kids' media/toy brands. It got me thinking once again about violent content, ratings, the convoluted and highly politicized way we define what is "appropriate" for kids, and the differences between Canada and the US when it comes to determining all of the above. The old adage goes that Canada is more likely to put stricter regulations on violence than the US, whereas the US is more likely to restrict sexuality than Canada when it comes to film and television. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only did the MPAA (the US film ratings board) give Transformers a PG-13 rating, but that the same ad strategies that initially piqued my interest (trailers for the film broadcast during children's television time blocks) are currently at the center of a little media controversy south of the border.

What started as a campaign by the CCFC for an FTC investigation into Hasbro and DreamWorks's marketing of Transformers to "preschoolers", has now gained some profile, garnering headlines like "Toys for Toddlers From PG-13 Movie" in the New York Times, and "Transformer Ads Target Children" in Forbes Online. According to the New York Times article:
[T]he movie is packed with so much violence that one of its stars, Shia LaBeouf, has said in interviews that Steven Spielberg, the executive producer, narrowly avoided an R rating. A spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, which bestows ratings on movies, declined to comment.

While the FTC has stated publicly that it is interested in hearing what the CCFC has to say, it's unclear whether the media attention will have the effect of raising the profile of the campaign and highlight the deficiencies of the film industry's self-regulatory system, or, as Anil Narine points out, simply make kids want to see it even more -- a strategy that is more than familiar in Hollywood. Strategic press leaks about the "realism" of the sex scenes in Mr. & Mrs. Smith simply contributed to the "buzz" about the film and led to a much larger than expected opening weekend (btw, Transformers just made $27.4 million on it's opening day of release). As Anil says, "Controversy is often absorbed into the marketing momentum of certain films."

I've been sitting on this story for a few days, feeling a bit ambivalent about it, for a couple of reasons. Initially, it didn't seem like it was going to get much traction -- according to the FTC, the film industries have been consistently terrible at adhering to their own rules about marketing to children and teens. Since 2000, the FTC has been monitoring the entertainment industries adherence to a fairly disorganized cluster of self-regulatory guidelines when it comes to marketing films to kids, producing an entire series of reports entitled Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children. In their most recent follow-up study, released last April, the FTC had this to say about the film industry:
Although there is no industry-wide standard, several individual movie studios have adopted guidelines restricting advertising on television shows where the under-17 audience is more than 35%. The study found a few examples of R-rated movies and unrated DVD advertisements on television shows where the under-17 audience exceeded 35%, but most television ads were placed on shows that fell under this threshold. Nevertheless, the report notes that a 35% standard still permits advertising on the vast majority of shows most popular with teens.

Considering the large number of "R"-rated films and videogames being promoted to kids left-right-and-center, a PG-13 rated robot smash-and-bash didn't seem like that much of a priority.

The second reason is harder to describe, but has a lot to do with the fact that what we're talking about here is the Transformers!!! The very same Autobots and Decepticons that have intermittently been a staple of kids' (and particularly boys') culture since the 80s. The movie, the series, the spin-offs (I'm looking at YOU, Beast Wars) are based on a kids' toy line, and thus it makes total sense to me that the movie would be promoted to kids (for some questioning of why it might make sense to me in particular, as someone who grew up in the 80s, read Common Sense Media's review).

Furthermore, as Anil also pointed out, the film is rated PG-13, which doesn't mean that kids can't go see it, just that parental guidance is recommended (he then listed the numerous awesome kids/family movies that fall under the PG-13 rating in the US, from Jurassic Park to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire...or all the foreign films that get inexplicable R-ratings, such as La cité des enfants perdus/City of Lost Children, which was rated PG in British Columbia). According to the MPAA, a PG-13 rating indicates:
PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED—Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

The PG-13 rating is thus a "sterner warning" for parents to be "very careful about the attendance of their under-teenage children", but it does not restrict children from viewing the movie, even unattended. On the other hand, as media scholars, I think we admire and appreciate a group like the CCFC's ongoing efforts to provide the crucial service of media watchdog, in the absence of concerted government-led monitoring and enforcement. As I said, on this one I remain ambivalent, sympathizing with both sides once again.

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