Straight Outta Illustrator: The History and Legacy of the RIAA's Parental Advisory Label
by Rudy Sanchez on 03/28/2022 | 7 Minute Read
In the summer of 1984, beloved musician Prince released what is perhaps his most significant album, Purple Rain. The soundtrack for the eponymous film gained commercial and critical success on its own and bridged the gap between several musical genres such as funk, R&B, rock, and pop.
It also led to one of the most recognizable graphics on packaging in recent history, the Parental Advisory Label (PAL).
Tipper Gore knew little about Prince before purchasing Purple Rain. She knew her daughter Karenna enjoyed "Let’s Go Crazy," but listening to the entire album and hearing the track "Darling Nikki" was a bridge too far as it depicted an explicit reference to a woman masturbating in a hotel lobby. Shocked and appalled, Mrs. Gore would round up other influential Washington D.C. spouses and form the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) to create a mandated rating system for music modeled after the Motion Picture Association’s age-based system.
By August of 1985, PMRC co-founder Mrs. Gore, along with Susan Baker, wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington D.C. realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former D.C. city council chairman John Nevius, pushed 19 record companies to agree to a content warning label. A Senate committee hearing on the matter was already moving ahead. It would include opposing testimony from rockers Frank Zappa and Dee Synder of Twisted Sister, along with the far less controversial country-folk artist John Denver, who made clear the inherent problem with applying labels to art, noting that his ode to his adopted Colorado home, Rocky Mountain High, had often been misinterpreted as a celebration of drug use.
There would prove no need for the government to create a music content rating system. Instead, the recording industry promised to label explicit content themselves. Unlike the PMRC proposed rating scale, the Recording Industry of America Association (RIAA) members would include a label clearly stating “explicit lyrics.”
The “Tipper Sticker” would debut in 1990, though at the time, there was no consistent, industry-wide standard label. The most common design, a simple black and white label, even varied slightly among recording companies, like Deborah Norcross’ “Parental Advisory; Explicit Content” graphic. According to Norcross, she had designed three versions of the label while art director at Warner Bros. Records, a position she’d hold for ten years (one of these versions is similar to the one worn by Woody Harrelson in the film White Men Can’t Jump).
Creating its final form, however, fell upon RIAA creative director Neal Ashby in 1996. He parted ways with the RIAA some years later and now runs Ashby Design, remaining in the music world and designing Grammy-nominated albums, among other projects.
Ashby drew inspiration from those earlier attempts used by some major record companies, such as Deborah’s versions. But the current iteration of the Parental Advisory Label is more streamlined than previous logos. The PAL is crisp and legible, and its stark lack of colors stands out enough in front of album art without dominating the viewer’s attention, just momentarily distracting it. The new warning label wouldn’t just appear on music packaging, but in advertisements, in-store installations, and posters, all made easier thanks to Neil’s accompanying style guide.
“It was a mess at the time because there was no definitive legal language," Neal said as he explained the infamous logo’s origin story. "The RIAA stepped in and said, 'Let's just create one logo to rule them all and make sure we have the right legal language. Let's have all of our council work it through Congress and get some agreements and get some sign-on."
According to Neal, then-RIAA CEO Jason Berman had the language they wanted for the sticker. They just needed him to design a good logo and a brand standards guide they could send out to all of the record labels. "The logo was done in an hour or two because I had taken probably six or seven different versions and synthesized all of those elements into something balanced that simply held up on its own," Neal said. "It had to be legible at the absolute smallest size. And the logo had to be so neutral that it didn't call a whole lot of attention to itself, even though it was screaming ‘Look at me!’”
Regardless, Neal could sympathize with designers that were now getting the sticker treatment. “It's like Van Gogh doing a beautiful painting and then someone saying, ‘guess what, dude? You have to put this big sticker in the corner.’ I did try and make the sticker as low impact as possible. I tried to design it, so it just disappeared.”
Neal was just a 25-year old designer at the time, and even though this was a part of his job, he was still very much on the musicians' side. But he also didn't want to create something that a designer would be embarrassed to use. It couldn't be ugly—it had to be a good piece of design.
“That's why it had such a long shelf life,” Neal said. “This thing that everyone is being forced to use, PAL, is about as good as this can be. I think graphic designers recognize that. It's not imbalanced—it's not cheesy. All of the white and dark spaces work fluidly together. That was done through the typeface weights and the tracking and kerning of the actual letters themselves. The overall effect is one of complete uniformity. It becomes a perfect gray rectangle from a distance with just enough black and white striping. It signifies something that still has that sense of warning to it.”
While Neal looked to make the PAL disappear and stay as out-of-place as possible, the logo took on a life of its own and stands out as a cultural icon. As a symbol, it represents all the naughty stuff your parents, teachers (uncool ones anyway), pastors, and other grownups around you don’t want you to hear as a kid.
The logo wouldn’t just be used by the music industry to keep a bunch of congress critters and their spouses at bay, of course. The PAL logo is also shorthand for those no-funs like the PMRC and their fight against free speech and artistic expression. But it also serves as a reminder of the ultimate failure in the logo’s mission—to keep kids away from explicit content.
SoCal ensemble NWA helped bring gangsta rap to mainstream commercial success, launching a golden age of hip-hop driven by frank lyrics about poverty, racism, gangs, drugs, violence, and sex. Commercial and critical hip hop classics like Nas’ Illmatic, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Snopp Dogg’s Doggystyle, and Ice-T’s Original Gangster all sported that familiar label and wore it as validation. Even the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton’s poster utilizes that familiar black and white style to immediately connect the group's rawness and controversy with clearly explicit material.
With hundreds of records donning the infamous sticker, Neal still likes to keep a collection of some of the best cultural applications of his parental advisory guide logo, including designer Alexander Wang using the Parental Advisory Label on a sweatshirt.
“One of my favorite rock and roll images I have is of Miley Cyrus in concert. She performs this one song where it gets played out in front of a huge blown-up image of the correct logo, and she just does all of these over-the-top sexual poses."
Ashby has a keen eye for his work in the wild, and those that know that the Parental Advisory Label is his work send him examples as well. He saves the best ones but says there are almost always mistakes with the homages and parodies.
“People like to do parodies where they change a word or two, but no one ever gets the typeface right,” Ashby said. “It was a brand new typeface that had just been designed in the mid-90s called Garage Gothic. If someone uses Garage Gothic, in its heavy, medium, and light weights to construct the logo, I know they're a good designer.”
Neal originally chose Gothic Garage as it was based on license plate imprints, with the soft, round edges that happen when you emboss a metal license plate. "Even the numbers are classic, license plate-driven numerals," he said. "The letters themselves are all crafted for maximum legibility. It softens the whole logo. It's not so harsh. When you look closely at the real version, everything has a soft, rounded edge."
The parental advisory logo is Ashby’s most recognizable work, having been reproduced for decades on physical packaging and digitally in music players and apps. However, the logo isn't something he brings up often or thought out about much until now.
“As a designer, I don't want to take more credit than I should. Ultimately, it's a refresh more than anything, he said. “Nobody wanted to spend any time or effort on it. Even I didn't want to spend any time or effort on it.”
Being invited to the Grammys, winning design awards, and working on less mundane and more expressive work made it easy for Neal to leave the PAL. Now, the label exists almost like a footnote or something destined for trivia night at the bar.
Fatherhood changed all that. “We'd go to a movie like The Amazing Spider-Man, and hanging on the wall in Spider-Man's room is a poster that I designed, and my kids would recognize it.," he said. “I never even really thought about the Parental Advisory Logo. Then my kids got older, and they would notice it everywhere."
“At that point, I started realizing that they could find my stuff in the world. When my children found out I did the PAL, I was a whole new level of cool to them. Because it’s still kind of badass, right? That’s when it started to mean more to me. When I saw it through the eyes of my kids, it’s something I'm proud to be a part of.”