WASHINGTON - The movie, video game and music industries aggressively market to underage youths violent products that carry adult ratings, federal regulators say.
A report released Monday by the Federal Trade Commission says that even movies rated R - which require an adult to accompany children under 17 to the theater - and video games that carry an M rating for 17 and over are routinely targeted toward younger people.
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore seized the issue for his campaign, calling for a voluntary ''cease-fire'' in marketing inappropriate material to children and threatening federal action if the industry fails to respond.
Republican opponent George W. Bush agreed the industry needs to do a better job policing itself. But he questioned Gore's credibility on the issue, asserting that the vice president had failed until now to take a strong stand on violence in the media.
The FTC pointed to materials submitted by the industry, showing intentional plans to promote their products to underage audiences. One document disclosed that a company's primary audience to sell M-rated video games was boys 12-17. Despite the age rating, ''the younger the audience, the more likely they are to be influenced by TV advertising,'' it said. A marketing plan for an R movie stated its purpose was to ''make sure everyone between the ages of 12-18 was exposed to the film.'' Company names were edited out.
''It's their documents. They knew what they were doing,'' said FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky.
President Clinton, who commissioned the investigation, challenged the entertainment industry to be responsive.
''The American people will give, I think, the entertainment industry a period now to fix this but something has to be done,'' Clinton said, during a campaign-style appearance in Scarsdale, N.Y., with his wife, Hillary, who is running for the Senate. ''They say these rating systems mean something. They can't turn around and advertise to people that shouldn't see this stuff.''
The commission is not pressing for more legislation, walking a careful line not to trigger First Amendment concerns. But the FTC wants the industry to expand voluntary codes prohibiting such practices and to sanction companies that run afoul of these guidelines.
Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, said they would propose legislation or new regulatory authority to sanction the entertainment industry if it doesn't stop marketing violence to children within six months.
''If the industry makes a promise not to market inappropriate material to children but then does so, it could be guilty of false advertising,'' they said in a statement.
Bush also said that parents and the industry need to do more ''to reduce the violence that our children see on the screen.'' But he accused Gore of suddenly seeking to capitalize on the issue.
''I think the man's short on credibility on the issue,'' Bush said, citing the millions Gore has received from the entertainment industry in political contributions.
Pitofsky has asked his staff to study whether laws governing deceptive and unfair trade practices would apply and if enforcement action could be brought against companies, if the behavior continues.
The movie and video game industries have voluntary age-based rating code systems. The recording industry has a more general label that warns of explicit content in music.
Of 44 R movies studied by the FTC, 35 were targeted to children under 17. Of 118 games carrying an M rating, 83 targeted children under 17 and all of the 55 music recordings with explicit-content labels were targeted to children under 17.
The Senate Commerce Committee plans a hearing on the report Wednesday.
Industry leaders questioned what conclusions the government could draw from scrutinizing Hollywood.
''If we are causing moral decay in this country, we ought to have an explosion of crime,'' Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said Sunday. ''The exact opposite is happening.''
He argued that any evaluation of the marketing practices of moviemakers can only be subjective and praised Hollywood's voluntary rating system.
''For almost 32 years, this industry has been the only segment of our national marketplace that voluntarily turns away revenues at the box office to redeem the pledge that we have made to parents,'' Valenti said.
Video game makers stress that more than 70 percent of their customers are over 18. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry trade group, adults buy nine of every 10 video and computer games sold in the United States. Only 7 percent of video games sold and rated since 1995 fall into the mature category.
But public interest groups said the new study could expose efforts by the industries to circumvent their own labeling system. For example, creating children's toys based on an R-rated movie enables the industry ''to go right ahead in a very surreptitious ways to market to kids,'' said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education.
On the Net: Federal Trade Commission site: http://www.ftc.gov
Motion Picture Association of America site: http://www.mpaa.org