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

Kimberly M. Thompson, ScD; Fumie Yokota, PhD

In This Article


Our analyses suggest that age-based and content-based rating information provide important insights about films and show strong correlations between higher scores for different types of content and higher age-based ratings. This study provides the first comparison between content-based ratings and the MPAA's age-based ratings and rating reasons, and it provides important information for parents and physicians about the content and ratings of films. Studies on children's use of various media suggest that videocassette viewing is an important source of entertainment for children, and these results suggest that parents should pay attention to the content in the films. We believe that physicians must actively engage parents in discussions about messages in the media and encourage them to engage in discussions with their children about media content.

Our findings related to creep of the ratings over the last decade suggest the need for consideration of efforts to standardize rating criteria over time, and perhaps logically relating any standards to children's development as appropriate, although we note that this may also change with time. The existence of ratings creep represents an important concern for parents and physicians, since their expectations for content in films of a given rating may reflect the experience from earlier points in time.

For G-rated films, our finding that animated films received significantly higher scores for violence than non-animated films suggests the need for additional research on the effects of animation on perception, particularly for young children. Given the possibility of long-term fear and anxieties from children's exposure to media,[25] physicians should discuss media consumption with parents of young children and the fact that animation does not guarantee appropriate content for children. Researchers should make it a priority to explore the cognitive effects of films on children of different levels of development and to expand on the limited research that now exists about children's ability to distinguish reality from fantasy,[26,27] while recognizing that understanding that something is not real does not necessarily negate effects.[28,29] In addition, researchers should also focus on identifying the other social factors that affect child development[30] and on characterizing the degree to which viewing films changes children's behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Other studies raise the same issues with respect to video games.[31]

While comparing different types of content and the meanings of the content scores relative to each other represents a difficult task, our findings in Table 4 provide some additional evidence to that suggested by prior studies[32,33] that the MPAA may assign more restrictive ratings to films containing sex than those containing violence. We reiterate, however, that the average scores that Kids-in-Mind assigned for sexual content for films rated PG, PG-13, and R probably increased significantly over the last decade, which contributed to the significant observed increase in overall ratings creep, and this suggests that the relative restrictiveness may continue to change. Given the absence of objective criteria applied to rate movies and assign rating reasons combined with increasing technological sophistication, we should probably expect ratings creep to continue.

The MPAA rating reasons generally correlate with higher scores assigned to content-based ratings (Figures 2, 3, and 4), which suggests good agreement between the rating reasons and related content-based scores. We found that the number of rating reasons given increases with rating category, as does the total score. However, by design, the rating reasons do not provide information about all types of content that might appear in films that might be of interest to parents. Notably, with Screen It! identifying tobacco in 1007 (79%) of the films and the MPAA providing no information about cigarettes in films, our findings clearly suggest the need for increased parental awareness about the prevalence of tobacco depiction in films, a point raised by other studies as well.[12,34] Combined with the significant amount of depiction of alcohol and drugs, we believe that the MPAA should consider whether raters should provide information about all substances in films as part of or in addition to film rating reasons. Our observation that the MPAA noted teen smoking as a rating reason for 3 PG-13 films in 2003 provides some indication of the MPAA's sensitivity to the issue with respect to films depicting the behavior of teens smoking, a situation where the US law prohibits those under the age of 18 years from purchasing tobacco. We emphasize that efforts to address the glamorization and normalization of substances in media marketed to youth clearly deserve significant attention.[35]

This paper provides the first attempt to correlate content, ratings, and the economics of films. We suggest that future studies should further explore the multitude of factors that influence film success and help characterize the role of particular types of content associated with better box office performances and/or lower costs of production. We note that the cost data should include adjustments for inflation, and that researchers should recognize that the data available from IMDbPro do not factor in time in their box office and budget data. Simple adjustment of the data by year in this study did not change the results (ie, with the appropriate adjustment of dollar values up to 2003 dollars for the years between 1996 and 2002, which required multiplying a factor between 1.17 and 1.02). The uncertain quality of the budget information leaves us to suggest that the MPAA remains in the best position to perform these types of analyses since movie studios pay a fee to obtain the MPAA rating that depends on the movie's budget, and the MPAA thus maintains the best access to these data.[36] However, given that the industry and the media rely on the IMDbPro data when reporting movie financial information, we believe these data provide sufficiently high quality for generating hypotheses for further exploration. Notably, future researchers should test the hypothesis that films that only receive a rating reason for violence obtain higher box office gross revenues on average, and the potential relationship between R-rated films that only receive a rating reason for sex and language performing best on the metric of gross revenues minus budget. We believe that the lack of better data to examine these correlations significantly limits the ability of independent researchers to assess whether particular types of content significantly correlate with budgets or box office returns. However, based on these limited data, it does appear that media violence sells in the United States.

The history of the evolution of the rating system suggests important context with respect to the information it provides, its purpose, and its future. The first motion pictures appeared in theaters in 1895, beginning in vaudeville, and the new technology quickly grew in popularity[37]; in a 1915 decision, the US Supreme Court upheld the right of states to restrict movie content in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230. In 1922, with 34 state laws restricting movie content, William Hays formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to create a mechanism for industry self-regulation, the predecessor to today's MPAA. In the 1930's, sociologists critically studied movies and noted their influences on individuals. By 1934, the industry became bound by a Production Code that required (1) cutting sex, revenge killing, arson, and dynamiting from films and (2) films receive a seal of approval prior to release.[38] In the 1960s, the MPAA led efforts to abolish the Production Code, which it perceived at the time as socially outdated in a time of sexual revolution. However, given 2 Supreme Court decisions in 1968 that maintained the power of cities and states to prevent children's exposure to books and films that could not be denied to adults (Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 and Interstate Circuit v. Dallas, 390 U.S. 676), the industry recognized that it would need some means for providing parents with advance cautionary warnings about film content.[16,20] Thus, in November 1968, the MPAA initiated its voluntary movie rating system based on trademarked ratings that it continues to use with relatively few changes since then.

Despite the MPAA's efforts and general satisfaction reported on its parent surveys,[20] some parents indicate a strong preference for information about the content of movies instead of an age-based rating[39,40] like that provided by the MPAA, and Internet sites like Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! help to meet this need.[22,23] Although numerous studies recommend criteria for improving media rating systems to include more descriptive information about content,[17,19] suggest the need to consider development of a universal media rating system,[17,30,33] raise questions about the extent to which existing ratings systems provide complete information about content for parents,[33,41] and indicate the need for ratings that factor in child development,[42] to date the industry has not engaged in any efforts to develop a rigorous science-based, child-development conscious, and parent-friendly universal media rating system. The lack of such an effort given public opinion polls reporting between 40% of parents indicating that a single rating system for all media would be "more useful"[43] and 78% of parents indicating that a uniform rating system for all media would be "better"[44] indicates an important disconnect between parent preferences and those of the ratings boards. We believe that given cross-media marketing and the proliferation and interaction of media, the research community should play a key role in exploring the potential development of a universal media rating system.

We recognize many limitations of this study, and we believe that future studies should use these results as a basis for developing and testing hypotheses. As indicated above, we relied on economic information of uncertain quality, and while they represent the best publicly available data relied on by the industry and the media, other studies should validate our observations. We also note that in constructing our database, we selected those films that both Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! reviewed, and this introduced a selection bias toward movies that they both identified as films important to them to review. Neither resource provides extensive information about the criteria used to select the movies that they review, but we believe that they effectively choose movies that studios market toward young audiences and release widely in theaters since their stated missions focus on providing high-quality, comprehensive information to help empower parents make better choices about films for their kids.[22,23] In addition, some variability may exist in the content-based scores, with Kids-in-Mind noting that "like most numerical rating systems, the numbers are inherently approximations (think of them as plus-or-minus-one)."[22] However, since both Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! provide detailed information and context to support their assessments, we believe that their scores represent reasonably consistent assessments and that they've remained stable over time. Although our use of the total scores to assess combined content implicitly assumes equal importance of the 3 types of content, we note that the existence of the individual scores makes it possible for parents particularly concerned about specific types of content to place more weight on those (eg, parents concerned more about violence or sex than profanity might deem a movie rated R for language more appropriate for their children than a PG-13 movie that received rating reasons for violent and sexual content[22]). With respect to substances, parents concerned about the messages that their children get from media should seek information about the depiction of substances in films from resources besides the MPAA, recognizing that the MPAA currently fails to provide reliable information about substances in films.


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