For Trailers, Green Now Means Watch Carefully
Due to an MPAA policy change, not all promos are age-appropriate.
September 4, 2009
Most parents are always careful about checking MPAA ratings before taking their children to the movies. But thanks to an unannounced change, they might find some unpleasant surprises at the cineplex. Since April, movie previews are no longer approved for all audiences.
The Motion Picture Association of America's Classification and Ratings Board substantially changed its policy earlier this year so that the promotional clips from upcoming films no longer need to be suitable for "general" audiences. The change went into effect without any announcement or opportunity to comment.
For movie trailers, the color green was originally intended to convey safety, and red was an alert -- just like a traffic light.
Whether a film is rated G (for general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned) or R (restricted to ages 17 and older), the "green-band" trailers shown in theaters and online are generally preceded by a notice on a green background explaining that "the following preview has been approved for all audiences."
"Red-band" trailers, whichcould include R-rated material, could be shown only before R-rated movies.
In general, MPAA rules are so strict that they even govern the language, the typefaces and how long the green-band frame must be visible onscreen.
Before the policy switch in April, a green-band trailer in theory could not include anything inappropriate for general audiences. A green-band trailer could at the most imply that the movie it was promoting had violence, strong language, nudity, drug use or other mature content.
Now the green-band trailer language has been switched from "approved for all audiences" to the much more vague "approved for appropriate audiences." But there's no indication of who the appropriate audience might be.
In addition, the MPAA's new policy is misleading. The trailer for the comedy "Extract" (rated R for "language, sexual references and some drug use") inexplicably still carries the original green-band "approved for all audiences" language, even though the promo clip includes references to the male anatomy, marital sexual frustration and the smoking of marijuana.
Elizabeth Kaltman, MPAA vice president for corporate communications, acknowledged in an e-mail that the MPAA had not made any public announcement of the change, which was "intended to allow motion picture distributors and exhibitors greater freedom" in promoting their films. "Whether a movie is rated G or PG, the appropriate audience tag still maintains that the trailer is appropriate for the viewing audience."
Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a frequent critic of studios' marketing PG-13 films to underage children, is concerned that this change was made without parental input. "This is more evidence that the MPAA is not interested in the welfare of children or helping parents make better decisions about content."
Because red-band trailers were shown only before R-rated films, in theory they would be seen only by adults. Since the Internet has become a key element of movie marketing, however, it has been impossible to limit red-band trailers to adult audiences. On the contrary -- underage teenagers are naturally interested in seeing red-band trailers. They are also skilled at getting around the "restrictions" that at most ask for a name and birthdate in order to gain access.
The MPAA promises to make some effort to ensure "appropriate" audiences by matching the content of the trailer to the film it precedes. However, a trailer for a film rated PG-13 for violence may appear before a movie rated PG-13 for language, so that might not be an "appropriate" audience. Because most young people watch trailers online, there will be no way to make sure that the viewing audience meets the MPAA's idea of "appropriate."
"With recent technological advances, the Internet marketing campaign for a motion picture can be broad and still be targeted to the appropriate audience for the film," the MPAA's Kaltman said. "For example, mature advertising content may be placed only on specific Web sites with more adult demographics or behind age gates or other devices designed to limit access to younger audiences. Some stronger advertising may be restricted to sites with similar themes and content."
But Linn points out that many parents will be "falsely reassured" when the word "appropriate" pops up on the familiar green background. "When the trailers turn up on the Internet, without any context, 'appropriate' has no meaning," she said.
The vagueness of the term "appropriate" and the subtle revision of the green-band screen also concerns Kimberly Thompson, adjunct associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who directs the Kids Risk Project and has studied and testified on the movie ratings system.
"The best solution is for [the MPAA ratings board] just to rate the trailers and require that the rating of the trailer be shown at the beginning of the trailer and that the rating of the movie is shown at the end of the trailer," she said. "It makes sense to color code the rating of the trailers so that it's obvious. [These trailers] should not all be green, particularly given the reality that parents have been trained to associate the green-band color with [the designation that a film] is 'appropriate for all audiences.'"