Super Bowl Ads Stir Violence Debate

By Christopher Stern

Washington Post Staff Writer

Just months after Hollywood pledged to take steps to stop marketing violent movies to underage children, film studios used the Super Bowl, with its huge family audience, to launch marketing campaigns for some particularly bloody movies.

Among the ads that aired during Sunday’s big game was a commercial for MGM’s R-rated “Hannibal,” which features a cannibalistic serial killer as its main character. Warner Bros. bought time during the pre-game show to advertise “Valentine,” which received an R rating for “strong horror violence” and “some sexuality.”

Warner Bros. also spent about $5 million for two 30-second spots for two other violent movies, “Exit Wounds” and “Swordfish.” Although neither movie has yet been rated, studio executives yesterday said they expect both films to get R ratings because of their violent content.

The Super Bowl “is a family activity, and many parents will be very alarmed to see this kind of graphic violence advertised,” said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, a public interest group that favors restrictions on Hollywood’s marketing efforts.

But several industry executives rejected the notion that there’s anything wrong with advertising an R-rated movie during the Super Bowl because the big game’s audience is predominately adult.

“You can’t avoid some spillover whenever you are dealing with broadcasting,” said MGM spokesman Craig Parsons. “We are not interested in reaching” children under 17, he said.

The commercials aired just days after Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (R-Conn.) announced he is writing legislation that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to prosecute entertainment companies under laws that prohibit deceptive advertising.

Lieberman and other members of Congress insist that the movie industry is not doing enough in response to an FTC report issued last September that found that Hollywood is regularly promoting adult-rated violent movies to children. In addition, the FTC report found that the music and video-game industries regularly market adult entertainment to children.

“It was inappropriate to air these ads while millions of children were likely watching,” said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Lieberman. “This shows precisely why this legislation is needed.”

Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti said yesterday that the studios are complying with guidelines issued by his organization in response to the FTC report. The guidelines, which do not mention television advertising, recommend that movie studios refrain from marketing R-rated movies to audiences attending G-rated films.

Valenti said he considered the advertisement for “Hannibal” to be a “very sensible” commercial for the general audience because the ad itself is not violent.

Brad Ball, president of domestic theatrical marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures, estimates that children under 17 made up just 17 percent of the Super Bowl audience. Nielsen Media Research estimated that the Super Bowl drew 131 million viewers. If Ball’s estimate is correct, 22.2 million people 17 or under were watching.

Ball said the studio is comfortable with its decision to advertise R-rated movies in Sunday’s big game. He noted that children are allowed to attend R-rated movies if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.

ABC, which is owned by Walt Disney Co., has said publicly that it will not air commercials for R-rated movies before 9 p.m., but CBS — which broadcast the game — never made such a pledge. CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz said each ad was reviewed to ensure that it was consistent with the network’s standards and practices.