When I was an adolescent, my friends and I had to rely on word-of-mouth about which stores would look the other way when it came to movie ratings and parental advisory warnings on music. But kids today, they have the benefit of the Federal Trade Commission, which periodically looks at how strict various businesses are about sticking to these ratings systems.
Since 2000, the FTC has been sending out actual teens (13 to 16 years of age) to actual chain stores and movie theaters to determine if these businesses are playing the cool uncle who sneaks you a beer from out of the cooler, or the boring, strict uncle who no one likes.
Let’s break down the FTC report one category at a time.
R-RATED & UNRATED DVDS
Back in 2003, teens has all-but-unfettered access to R-Rated and unrated DVDs, with mystery shoppers seeing success rates of 81% and 71%, respectively. Boy how times have changed.
The mystery shopper report for 2012 shows only a 30% rate for either category of DVD, however the actual range of success rates is quite wide. For R-Rated DVDs, Blockbuster and Best Buy were the hardest places for teens to score, with success rates of 14% and 17%, respectively. Best Buy also had the second-lowest success rate (16%) for teens trying to buy unrated DVDs. Only Barnes & Noble (14%) was more strict about turning teens away.
Which makes virtually no sense when you see that Barnes & Noble sold R-Rated DVDs to teens 48% of the time. Only Target, at 51%, did a better job of ignoring the ratings on R-Rated flicks.
M-RATED VIDEO GAMES
When the FTC first started testing stores, teens had an 85% chance of walking out of a store with an M-Rated video game, but most retailers have become incredibly strict about this category, with the overall success rate dropping to 13% in 2012.
Target appears to hold the hardest line on M-Rated games, or has gotten really good at identifying FTC’s mystery shoppers, at the retailer sold zero of these games to the FTC last year.
Meanwhile, Walmart was by far the easiest place to score an adult game, with mystery shoppers seeing a 25% success rate.
R-RATED MOVIE TICKETS
This is the category that has dropped the least since the FTC first started sending mystery-shopping teens to buy tickets, as its starting success rate in 2000 was only 46%. In 2012, that had declined to 24%, after a minor spike up to 33% in 2010.
Once again, you see a very wide range of success rates depending on the theater chain. AMC apparently takes the MPAA ratings very seriously, only letting teens in to see R-Rated fare 5% of the time.
But across town at a theater operated by Carmike or Hollywood Theaters, you’re looking at a success rate of 44%, so go to those movie theaters if you’re 14 and want to see something good.
MUSIC WITH PARENTAL ADVISORY LABELS
Apparently some people still buy music on CD. We don’t know who these people are, but at least some of them are FTC secret shoppers, and nearly half (47%) were successful in purchasing music with racy lyrics that some people think kids shouldn’t hear. That rate is down from a high point of 90% in 2004, which is about the last time that we heard of anyone going out to buy a CD.
All four retailers investigated by the secret shoppers — Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Target, Trans World (f.y.e., Suncoast) — had similar success rates, ranging from 41% (Kmart) to 51% (Trans World).
We have a feeling the success rate on iTunes, Amazon and elsewhere is a lot higher.