Violence, Sex, and Profanity in Films: Correlation of Movie Ratings With Content

Kimberly M. Thompson, ScD; Fumie Yokota, PhD

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In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Context: Children's exposure to violence, sexual themes, profanity, and the depiction of substances in movies remains a source of parental and public health concern. However, limited research quantifies the correlations between movie content, ratings, and economics or addresses the issue of ratings "creep."
Objectives: To characterize available information about violence, sex, and profanity content of movies as a function of rating; quantitatively explore the relationships between content, ratings, and economic information; compare the amount of violence in animated and non-animated G-rated films; and test for a trend of decreased stringency of rating criteria (ie, "ratings creep") as a function of time.
Design: We developed a complete database of movie ratings available from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to characterize the content information (including any indicated reasons noted for ratings) for all movies released between January 1, 1992 and December 31, 2003. We then added to the database the three Kids-in-Mind content-based scores for: (1) violence and gore, (2) sex and nudity, and (3) profanity; and the 15 categories of information from Screen It!, which began providing information in mid-1996. Finally, we obtained information on gross revenues and movie budgets from the IMDbPro. We performed statistical analyses to correlate the content-based scores with the overall rating and rating reasons assigned by the MPAA; to test the hypothesis that age-based ratings became less stringent over time; to explore correlations between film content, ratings, and available economic information; to compare the amount of violence in animated and non-animated G-rated films; and to characterize the available information about the depiction of substances in films.
Main Outcome Measures: Description of movie ratings, correlation of content with rating, and statistical results.
Results: Comparing the content-based scores for different movie ratings, we find large variability exists in the types of content that receive different MPAA ratings, and good correlation between the content-based scores assigned by Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! The MPAA rating reasons correlate with higher scores assigned to content-based ratings, and the number of reasons indicated increases with the age-based rating category. We found significantly higher rated content in movies as a function of time, suggesting that the MPAA applied less stringency in its age-based ratings over time for the period of 1992-2003. Animated films rated G by the MPAA received a significantly higher content-based score for violence on average than non-animated films rated G (P < .05). With respect to information about the depiction of substances, the MPAA mentioned alcohol or drugs in its rating reason for 226 films (18%), while Screen It! identified depiction or use of tobacco, alcohol, and/or drugs in 1211 films (95%), including 26 of the 51 G-rated films (51%). We found significantly higher gross revenues for PG-13- and R-rated films when comparing films that received an MPAA rating reason for violence compared with those films that did not (P < .001 based on 2-sided t-tests with unequal variances for both of the separate tests of PG-13- and R-rated films).
Conclusions: Parents and physicians should be aware that movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and types of potentially objectionable content. Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity, and other content, and the criteria for rating movies became less stringent over the last decade. The MPAA rating reasons provide important information about content, but they do not identify all types of content found in films and they may particularly miss the depiction of substances.

Concern about the content of movies dates back to the beginnings of the film industry and continues into the current time.[1,2,3,4,5,6] Public health research demonstrates correlations between children's exposure to media and preventable mental health problems, and suggests that media may provide models for risky behaviors that children and adolescents may imitate.[7,8] Researchers assessing the content of some popular PG-rated and non-animated G-rated movies noted the lack of appropriate public health messages (ie, a lack of injury prevention practices and poor portrayal of the consequences of injuries) and the presence of mixed and inappropriate health messages, including glorification of violent acts, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and frequent depiction of firearms.[9,10] Our prior studies quantified the content in G-rated animated films and found that these films contained more depiction of violence, alcohol, and tobacco than might be expected given their G rating.[11,12] With children consuming several hours of movies and videos weekly and representing a major part of the motion picture market,[13,14] studying media content remains an important area for research.

We performed a review of the literature up through March 1, 2004 to identify any prior research that related motion picture ratings, content, and economic performance. We searched MEDLINE, EconLIT, ERIC, Academic Search Premier, and JSTOR for the terms "movie," "motion picture," or "box office" combined with "rating." In the JSTOR search, we searched for articles and reviews, selecting the following fields for journals: Art & Art History, Business, Economics, Finance, History, Mathematics, Political Science, Population Studies, Sociology, and Statistics. Our search of the literature did not reveal any academic studies that correlated all movie ratings with content or any recent studies that correlated ratings with film gross sales or budgets. Austin and colleagues[15] reported that approximately 27%, 24%, and 14% of PG-, G-, and R-rated films, respectively, rated between 1968 and 1979 brought in revenues exceeding $1 million (1969 dollars; note that this occurred before the separation of the PG-13 category), but did not relate the revenues to particular types of content. Reviews of the literature suggest inconsistent findings in individual studies related to whether media ratings significantly affect consumer interest, with a meta-analysis suggesting a potential age-related effect.[16,17,18,19] Remarkably, no analysis to date comprehensively quantifies or characterizes the relationships between the ratings, content, and economics of movies; tests the hypothesis of decreased stringency in ratings over time (ie, "ratings creep"); or tests the hypothesis that animated and non-animated G-rated films contain similar depictions of violence on average. This study contributes quantitative information about these relationships and hypotheses.

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