Our analysis shows that the rating system does statistically differentiate mean
levels of smoking, drinking, sexual behavior, violence, and drug use in movies, with R rated films containing the highest levels of each of these behaviors. However, as further analysis indicated, evidence of mean differences in the portrayal of risk behaviors across rating categories did not necessarily equate to the ability of any given rating to accurately describe the content of any specific film. When the variability in the amount of risk behaviors in films was taken into account, we found a large degree of overlap in content between rating categories. Particularly with regard to alcohol and tobacco content, we found that the rating categories do not adequately distinguish the amount of these behaviors portrayed in a movie. Although it is not the purpose of the currently established ratings categories to accurately distinguish amount of tobacco and alcohol use, viewing alcohol and tobacco use on screen have been empirically linked to adolescent initiation of smoking and drinking. Therefore, it is disconcerting that ratings, which are supposed to help parents decide whether or not their children should see a film, do not clearly differentiate how much of these behaviors were portrayed. The high degree of overlap between rating categories indicates that the MPAA ratings, as currently defined, are not an adequate proxy for tobacco or alcohol content in a movie and therefore are not useful for parents who may want to know about content that could influence the risk behaviors of their children. Additionally troubling is recent research by Jenkins and colleagues (Jenkins, Webb, Browne, Afifi, & Kraus, 2005) that found a similar effect for violent content — a variable that is supposed to directly contribute to MPAA ratings. In line with the present data, they found that despite mean differences in violent content in ratings, the violent content within each rating category varied to such an extent that the ratings did not adequately predict the level of violence in the film. On a practical level, the MPAA ratings may not differentiate content on a movie-by-movie basis as well as parents expect, despite the fact that the MPAA states that their ratings board “uses the same criteria as any parent making a judgment” when rating a movie (MPAA, 2005a
Recently, in response to increasing pressure from anti-smoking groups, major public health organizations, and State Attorneys General, the MPAA announced that it will begin to consider cigarette smoking as a criterion when rating a movie (MPAA, 2007
). In addition, it would be possible to add descriptive content codes to provide more specific detail about a films’ smoking or drinking content. Although it is possible that this may make the rating system more informative for parents, our data suggest that anything short of a definitive rating for movies with smoking content is unlikely to clearly differentiate movies based on tobacco use. For example, even though the MPAA considers sexual content when rating a movie, we still found a substantial degree of overlap of sexual content in movies across all rating categories. Importantly, the significant degree of overlap would be missed by an analysis that concentrates only on statistical differences between average seconds of exposure. However, female nudity was not found in any G or PG movies because the MPAA has determined that nudity automatically warrants a higher rating. Similarly, in order to completely eliminate smoking from youth-rated movies, any movie with smoking would need to be assigned an R-rating.
We acknowledge that our measures of exposure do not take into account the context in which risk behaviors appeared in films. This context is likely to be very important in terms of which behaviors viewers’ adopt. For example, characteristics of the context such as whether the person engaging in the behavior is a favorite actor of the viewer or a momentary background figure, or whether the behavior itself is portrayed as glamorous or buffoonish, will likely add to or detract from the power of the overall portrayal. The sexual content variable, in particular, included time of exposure to a range of behaviors including sexual intercourse as well as relatively benign romantic kissing, and did not differentiate the type or graphicness of sexual activity portrayed. Because we did not consider intensity or context of sexual behaviors, which presumably are considered by the ratings board, we may have overestimated the degree of overlap of sexual content across rating categories. However, the fact that even this rough measure of sexual exposure time seems to better distinguish between rating categories than tobacco or alcohol exposure is troubling given the known relationships between viewing tobacco and alcohol use in movies and teenage smoking and drinking. Drug use and violence were coded categorically, which limited our ability to directly compare them to the other variables in the ratings discrimination findings. However, it is clear that the MPAA ratings are much better at distinguishing drug use than violence based on our finding that none of the G or PG movies we coded contained high salience drug use, but approximately half of the G and PG movies contained high salience violence.
Overall, we found that the amount of tobacco and alcohol use in movies has decreased over time. This could suggest that the movie industry is responding to increasing pressure by public health groups to eliminate smoking from movies and/or that they are simply reflecting the decrease in smoking among the general population. We did not find support for increased risk behavior content over time for any movie rating and in fact, there was a general decline in the amount of smoking, drinking, and sexual behavior over time, suggesting that a “ratings creep” was not evident in these data. Ratings creep, however, is only one type of inconsistency that might affect the reliability and validity of move ratings (Gentile, Humphrey, & Walsh, 2005
). The fact that the MPAA ratings do not clearly distinguish age-appropriate from age-inappropriate content indicates that the ratings are not a useful indicator of movie content for certain risk behaviors.
The MPAA rating system has been used by parents for almost four decades, and it is easily accessible and understandable to most parents. Studies have shown that an R-rating for a film is a reasonable proxy for high amounts of risk behaviors, including tobacco and alcohol content, and parental restriction of children’s access to R-rated films is related to a lower risk of engaging in smoking and drinking (Dalton, Ahrens, et al., 2002
; Jackson, Brown, & L’Engle, 2007
; Sargent et al., 2004
; Thompson & Gunther, 2006). However, the present analysis shows that a substantial proportion of the lower rated movies may have as much alcohol and tobacco use as R-rated movies. If the intent of the MPAA rating system is to help parents select age-appropriate movies, it is clear that the system may need to be expanded to content beyond its current scope (violence, sexuality, and profanity) to include other health behavior content that has also been shown to be detrimental to children such as tobacco and alcohol. More extensive content-based ratings systems for films that do take tobacco and alcohol use into account are being developed and are currently available on the internet (e.g., http://www.ScreenIt.com
). However, these guides are not as easily accessible as the MPAA ratings and it is unrealistic to expect that most parents have the time or resources required to consult them prior to each movie viewing. This study demonstrates that the MPAA criteria for determining a film’s rating need to be updated to better reflect research demonstrating that adolescents are influenced by movie portrayals of risk behaviors, including alcohol and tobacco use. Future research should examine whether any updates to the rating system are useful for parents who are concerned about these behaviors.