latest FTC “secret shopper” survey shows improving ratings enforcement

by on May 8, 2008 · 24 comments

Since 2000, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has surveyed the marketing and advertising practices of major media sectors (movies, music and video games) in a report entitled Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children. (The reports can be found here). According to the agency, the purpose of these reports is to examine “the structure and operation of each industry’s self-regulatory program, parental familiarity and use of those systems, and whether the industries had marketed violent entertainment products in a manner inconsistent with their own parental advisories.” Toward that end, the agency hires a firm that conducts “secret shopper” surveys to see how well voluntary media rating systems (MPAA, ESRB, RIAA) are being enforced at the point of sale. The research firm recruits a bunch of 13- to 16-year-olds who make an attempt to purchase such media without a parent being present.

Although I’ve always had some questions about these undercover surveys, which I will get to in a moment, the bottom line is: Ratings enforcement has generally been improving over time, and in the case of the ESRB system for games, it has improved dramatically in a very short period of time. For example, the latest survey shows that whereas 90% of kids were able to purchase an “Explicit Lyrics” CD back in 2001, that’s fallen to just over 50% in the latest survey. R-rated cinema admissions have dropped gradually, from almost 50% of kids getting in in 2001, to about 35% today. R-rated DVD sales for teens have falled from 81% in 2001 to 47% today. And the video game industry’s outstanding education and awareness-building efforts have shown the most success, with M-rated video games only being sold to 20% of teens today, down from 85% back in 2000. That’s an impressive turn-around in a very short amount of time.

FTC secret shopper surveys

But, as I pointed out in an essay last year, there’s always a missing part of the story when these FTC secret shopping surveys are released:

Here’s another interesting thing that this report doesn’t really discuss: All these things – – CDs, movie tickets, DVDs, video games – – cost money! CDs cost almost $20 bucks; DVD’s are $20-$30; video games are $20 to $60. In many ways, the price of these items is the most effective parental control at our disposal. If my kids want these things, they have to get the money from me to buy them. (Isn’t that they way it works in most families, or am I living on a different planet?) So, parents certainly can exercise a great deal of control over their children’s media buying decisions by simply exercising their “power of the purse” and talking to kids about their purchases. But none of this is mentioned in the FTC report.

And that’s what makes the FTC’s use of “mystery shopper” surveys in these reports somewhat problematic. Here’s the way these things work. The FTC hires a firm that recruits a bunch of 13- to 16-year-olds who make an attempt to purchase such games without a parent being present. (Incidentally, where were these “mystery shopper” jobs when I was a teenager? This certainly would have beat sweeping the floors in my dad’s warehouse every summer!)

But do all 13-16 year olds really go into stores and buy games on their own? Are you telling me that parents of 13-16 year olds are never present when these purchasing decisions are being made? I find that very hard to believe. And, again, even if you let your 13-16 year olds wander around malls as they wish, do you stuff wads of cash in their pockets beforehand and tell them to go buy whatever they desire? Moreover, even if you did that, when they come back with a bag from an electronics retailer stuffed with games, movies or music, do you not ask them any questions about it? Come on! This report assumes parents are completely asleep at the wheel and that our kids are left completely free to buy any media they want. That’s just not the way the real world works.

I guess critics could argue that some kids can get access to their parents’ credit cards or somehow use deceit to get money from them to buy these things on their own. And many kids do have their own allowance, of course (but apparently it’s a heck of lot more generous than the allowance I used to get growing up in the 1970s!) But this is all clearly a matter of personal responsibility that parents must deal with in this and many other many contexts. In a free society, government should not use a potential lack of parental responsibility as an excuse for regulatory intervention.

Another point missed in these FTC reports:

it is important to recall that even if your kids somehow manage to buy a movie or video game rated above their age group, you also have another line of defense once those things are brought into the home: parental control technologies. For example, major game consoles developers (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo) all include sophisticated parental controls in their new gaming systems. These console controls allow parents to enter the ESRB rating level that they believe is acceptable for their children. Once they do so, no game rated above that level can be played on the console. (All ESRB-rated games contain embedded “flags,” or a string of code in the software, that allow the consoles to automatically recognize the game’s rating). And the same is true of DVDs, which can be blocked on DVD players, personal computers, and gaming consoles using the MPAA ratings designations.

And, finally, there’s this forgotten fact:

no matter how good (or how prominent) the industries make their labels and ratings, there will always be a small group of parents who are willing to walk right up to the cash register and hand a salesperson $20 to $60 bucks to buy their kids “Sin City” or “Grand Theft Auto.” And plenty of parents still buy their kids tickets to R-rated movies and walk into the theater with them. In other words, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t always make them drink. Honestly, I don’t know what some of those parents are thinking, but we have to accept the fact there are some parents out there who adopt a veritable “anything goes” approach to their children’s media consumption.

Despite all that, the good news is that the FTC’s mystery shopper surveys continue to show signs of improvement. Voluntary rating systems are working reasonably well. And although there is always room for improvement, I would hope we all could agree that these private rating and enforcement efforts are preferable to government regulatory efforts.

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