A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

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Not in front of the children? Sex, drugs, flesh and blood

You’re with small kids at the mall, browsing the DVD displays for a family movie. A loophole in classification regulations means the toddlers may well get an education you didn’t bargain on. Maria Abbatangelo investigates.

Words by Maria Abbatangelo
 
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It’s summertime, school holidays, and Target in Doncaster’s Westfield mall is milling with shoppers.

In the entertainment section a young couple ponder a DVD purchase. Their toddler daughter meanwhile sees and grabs a copy of Smurfs: The Lost Villagefrom the shelf. On the same display stand, one row above it and well within her line of sight, sits Resident Evil (MA15+) and John Wick 2 (MA15+), with a tough-looking Keanu Reeves toting a gun on the cover.

Although stringent regulations exist to classify DVDs and to ensure sure a rating is clearly visible on the product cover or wrapping, there are no clear guidelines for displaying DVDs in family-oriented stores. Some retailers have developed their own protocols, but they provide little reassurance to parents concerned about the images young children might come across in browsing general interest DVD displays.

Investigating concerns raised by parents and community organisations, The Citizen surveyed stores in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne at random and over several months, and found numerous examples of DVDs with covers containing violent, sexually suggestive and explicit imagery displayed next to G and PG-rated children’s content, at children’s eye level. Stores visited included Kmart in Boronia and at Victoria Gardens, Richmond; Big W in Box Hill and Doncaster and Target in Doncaster and Camberwell.

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A number of community and family groups, as well as individual parents, expressed concern over the situation. Carrie, a mother from Mount Evelyn, was appalled to discover a blood-spattered DVD cover, featuring a drill through a woman’s head, on a shelf well within sight of her six-year-old daughter. “Before [having a child] I was not aware how offensive things can be and that kids can have nightmares about what they’ve seen.”

Carrie said she took her concerns to staff and managers at the Big W store, but got no clarity or re-assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. Initially she was told it was against store policy for MA15+ and children’s DVDs to be displayed side by side, and the offending items were removed from the shelves.  But “you could literally go in the next day and it would all be back the same way,” she said.

The Classification Act 1995 specifies that restricted DVDS – those marked R 18+ or higher – cannot be sold to minors, while those marked MA 15+ cannot be sold to children 15 years or under.

But an apparent loophole means there is no such clarity regarding the way in which these items may be displayed by retailers. The 1995 Act does not address the issue of DVD retail display.

A spokesperson for the Department of Communications and the Arts, which is responsible for Commonwealth classification policy, confirmed “there appear to be no specific guidelines in state and territory laws for the placement and display of classified DVDs in family and retail stores”.

A variety of industry organisations with a potential stake in the issue were approached for comment by The Citizen. None were able to source any rules specifically regarding the retail display of DVDs. They included the Australian Retailers’ Association, the Advertising Standards Board, the Communications Council and the Australian Communications Media Authority.

Consumer Affairs Victoria – which confirmed to The Citizen there were no regulations under its own remit regarding the arrangement of DVDs in retail outlets –  suggested the matter “would be at the discretion of the retail outlet’s policies”.

However, The Citizen’s approaches to senior management of the various stores also yielded little clarity on their internal guidelines governing DVD displays.

Wesfarmers, which owns both Kmart and Target, referred enquiries back to the individual retailers. A Kmart spokesperson, when pushed, advised the store had guidelines for A-Z display of DVD titles, as well as separate categories for kids and TV series, but did not respond when asked to clarify if these guidelines permitted the side-by-side display of children’s and MA 15+ products.

Woolworths (which owns Big W) said that although it had a children’s section, there were many DVDs which appealed to both children and adults. “To help our customers find the DVDs they are interested in, we do display these titles together despite them covering the range of classifications,” a spokesperson said.

One Target manager at a store in Melbourne’s east explained that some of the store’s DVD display space is rented and stocked by external companies such as Roadshow and Disney.

The companies provided “planograms” for these spaces specifying how their DVD merchandise would be displayed, the manager said. Recent specifications direct DVDs to be displayed by price. On the day The Citizen visited, G and PG-rated DVDs featured alongside those rated MA 15+, and in one instance an R-rated film.

Roadshow spokeswoman Margaret Lauric said a policy for the display of DVD products did exist but it was “classified” and could not be disclosed.

The Australian Family Association, which promotes traditional family values, said the situation was unacceptable. “There seems to be this push to regard children as competent agents from a very early age – that they’re able to assess the impact or import of what they’re looking at or reading or being told,” said spokeswoman Terri Kelleher.  “It’s our responsibility as a society to protect children until they’re able and old enough to process things themselves.”

It’s an argument echoed by Collective Shout, which campaigns against the objectification of women and sexual exploitation. “This particular issue is part of a cultural context that normalises the exposure of children to adult material,” a spokesperson said. “This demonstrates there are no trustworthy safeguards in place to ensure children are protected and treated with respect even in shopping centres that are supposed to be family friendly.

“The onus is on parents and citizens to take their own action.”

Michelle of Mount Waverley, mother to two children aged 11 and nine, said it was problematic accessing children’s DVDs even in stores with dedicated children’s sections.

“They might have to walk right through an aisle with M-rated, horror themed [DVDs], things like that – adult-content DVDs – to get to the children’s section.” Her children had become de-sensitised over time through so often seeing covers that were “quite graphic,” she said.

Carrie said her daughter was clearly distressed by the material she had seen on show in the DVD displays, and now asked her mother to avoid taking her into that part of the store.

“Anyone that stocks content and DVDs and anything that has adult content should have a space that you can avoid quite easily if you have children with you,” she said.

She urged retailers to consider making appropriate policies and stick to them.

Photographs of video displays were taken by the author at Target stores in Doncaster and Camberwell in 2017.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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