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Guidelines for Theater Ads Draw Criticism

A trade group for cinema advertisers is drawing criticism for the types of ads it says are suitable to run before movies.

The Cinema Advertising Council, which helps standardize practices for its burgeoning business, developed “creative guidelines” to help its member companies maximize creativity and discover which spots might be appropriate in front of which movies.
“Advertising at the movies reaches active and affluent consumers in a uniquely captive setting,” read the guidelines on the council’s Web site. “In our diverse society, it is not easy to make judgments without incurring some disagreement. But, hopefully this document will serve as a meaningful guide to producers.”
The CAC’s guidelines have already incurred some disagreement, most notably from Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding media companies accountable.
CSM wants parents to take action on the guidelines.
“If you are as dumbstruck by this list of ‘acceptable’ messages for teens as we were, tell the theatre owners what you think,” read its call to action. It then lists the names and telephone numbers of the presidents of the three largest cinema advertising companies.
Cinema advertising is generally divided into three types: audio ads (heard in the theater prior to the show); on-screen ads (whether slides or commercials); and lobby promotions (e.g. billboards, popcorn bag sponsorships).
The CAC breaks its creative guidelines down by movie ratings.
For example, “characteristics suitable to run” in advertisements before G-rated features include “talking animals” and “melodic singing.”
PG-rated movies can handle advertisements containing “burping,” “comedic bodily noises” and “dating scenarios,” the guidelines say.
CSM singled out the list for PG-13 movie advertisements, which includes “male shirtless or in underwear,” “kidnapping,” “showing drug use” and “light sexual innuendo or subliminal messages.”
The list for ads before R-rated features included 17 types of content, including “genital grabbing or rubbing,” “excessive bloodshed,” “young children yelling in pain,” “female cleavage focus point,” “sacrilegious language or imagery” and “glorifying smoking.”
The CAC did not respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking information about the process by which these guidelines were developed.
“We evaluate everything as if our sister was calling us up for advice,” Liz Perle, CSM’s editor-in-chief, told EthicsDaily.com.
“Glorifying smoking? What’s that about?” said Perle.
The R rating means the film is supposed to be “restricted” to anyone under 17 who is not accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. The legal purchasing age for tobacco products is 18.
“The media is the message,” said Perle. “There is no excuse to glorify smoking with kids who are too young to smoke. It makes no common sense. That’s my position. It’s not good for kids. There’s only one argument these guys can make: It’s good for advertisers.”
Regal CineMedia, a cinema advertising vendor with more than 6,000 U.S. screens, did not respond to an e-mail.
Another vendor, National Cinema Network, puts ads on more than 10,000 screens across North America.
“If you’re craving teens and young adult consumers, take your message to the movies,” NCN says in its Web site pitch to potential advertisers. “There’s no better place to build lifetime brand loyalty. At the movies you’ll reach kids who are developing their tastes and brand preferences, parents looking for “meals-on-the-run” and older adults looking for a night out.”
The U.S. box office grossed $9.49 billion in 2003, according to a report conducted by the Motion Picture Association of America, and tallied more than 167 million moviegoers. The box office has grown more than $6 billion in the last two decades.
The increase in cinema advertising on the heels of this box-office boom caught the attention of Commercial Alert, a non-profit organization founded by Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin in 1998. Dedicated to keeping commercialism in its proper sphere, Commercial Alert followed the proliferation of cinema ads and called for theaters to print when movies, not advertisements, begin.
Cinema advertising has nevertheless increased, playing as it does to what marketers trump as the “captive audience.”
“I think it’s immoral,” said Perle of what CSM considers limitless product promotion in theaters. “It’s predatory. It’s greed.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.