Controversial billboard awaken standards debate

Who polices the advertisers when outdoor ads are more controversial than films?

When After Dark Films launched its outdoor campaign for Lionsgate's slated May 18 release "Captivity," the images featured a young woman in several graphic states that reflected the slogan "Abduction. Confinement. Torture. Termination."

That last bit -- termination -- aptly describes what happened to the billboard campaign, which was yanked when the ads proved controversial. But the hoo-ha over the billboards also raised a question: Should outdoor advertising and TV commercials come with ratings?

That's one issue the Federal Trade Commission might be looking into as it puts the final touches on a report about the marketing of violent entertainment to those under the age of 18 -- itself a follow-up to a report issued in 2000, when it accepted the Motion Picture Association of America's argument that the industry should be allowed to police itself.

Most Hollywood insiders are adamant that it would be a mistake to use this single controversy to clamp down on an entire industry.

"We have been responsible as an industry," says Jim Gallagher, president, Buena Vista Pictures Marketing. "My preference is that we would continue to work responsibly in this way, without having to go to ratings."

"Captivity" is not the only faux pas to have occurred in recent years. A Sunset Boulevard billboard in Los Angeles for the 2004 Vincent Gallo film "The Brown Bunny" drew protests when it showed actress Chloe Sevigny performing what appeared to be oral sex on her co-star. That billboard -- initiated by Gallo, according to insiders -- eventually came down as a result of the objections.

Despite these exceptions, the MPAA has strict guidelines covering exactly what studios can use in their marketing materials. It issues a guidebook that forbids marketers from using material that is not appropriate for family audiences, except when specifically targeted at an adult viewership, like on certain Web sites. All materials must be sent to the MPAA and reviewed by its staff.

The MPAA Advertising Handbook's rules also apply to independent distributors who are not MPAA members but who want an MPAA rating for their movies -- which is to say, almost all movies released in the U.S. "Any movie that could afford a billboard is going to be rated," says Ryan Werner, IFC Films head of marketing, though he notes that the materials are either approved or not, rather than given a particular rating.

Abroad, matters are more complicated. "Every country is different in terms of how they deal with censorship and advertising materials," notes Sue Kroll, president of marketing at Warner Bros. Pictures International. In the U.K., "you have to reduce the intensity of a TV spot if you want it to air at a certain hour."

So, how did After Dark and Lionsgate initially get away with such a gruesome billboard? Insiders say the MPAA had given a thumbs-down to the artwork but that the companies went ahead with it anyway -- and faced sanctions as a result. The MPAA then gave the film a 30-day suspension and refused to rate it during that time, possibly delaying its scheduled release date. "This was an unacceptable and flagrant violation of MPAA rules and procedures," MPAA senior vp advertising Marilyn Gordon said at the time.

A Lionsgate spokesman referred the matter to After Dark, saying: "Under the terms of our deal, After Dark Films has full autonomy regarding the marketing and distribution of the film." After Dark did not return calls seeking comment.

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