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NRA Brand Break-Ups Suggest This Time Is Different

By Published on .

Credit: Photograph by Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg, Illustration Composite by Ad Age

The National Rifle Association often finds itself on the defensive in the wake of mass shootings. But the NRA is feeling more heat than ever in the wake of last week's massacre at a Florida high school as some corporate partners back away from the organization.

Rental car giants Hertz and Enterprise, airlines Delta and United, insurer MetLife, online security firm Symantec and home security provider SimpliSafe are among the companies that have ended discount programs for NRA members in the wake of the assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead. The relatively quick responses from corporations that are normally careful to avoid politics suggest that the Feb. 14 shooting has induced a public backlash against the NRA that's unlike previous incidents.

Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, cited the role of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived the shooting. On social media, cable TV appearances and in public protests, the students have called for new gun control measures. "We've got a group of students that are incredibly engaged and the teachers are engaged and everybody is rallying around them," Calkins says. "There's been basically no mourning period here. It's just been action right from the incident."

He compared the corporate response to the tipping point reached in recent years when mainstream brands began declaring their support for same-sex marriage after years of tiptoeing around the issue. "When it starts to tip, it tends to tip quickly," he says.

The companies are acting as support for gun control grows. A Quinnipiac University National Poll released this week shows that 66 percent of U.S. voters support stricter gun laws, the highest level of support ever measured by the poll. In 2015, 47 percent of respondents supported stricter measures.

St. Louis-based Enterprise Holdings Inc.—which owns the Enterprise, Alamo and National car rental brands —was not shy about its move to end discounts for NRA members. The company's brands on Twitter made it clear they were walking away from the group in responses to consumer social media inquiries.

An Enterprise spokeswoman confirmed in a statement to Ad Age that the company will end the discount program effective March 26.

Delta and United announced their moves in tweets Saturday morning.

A spokeswoman for Symantec, whose brands include anti-virus software provider Norton, also confirmed that it was ending its NRA discount program. The company declined further comment. As of Friday morning, Norton was still promoting an NRA-affiliated program on its website that offered deals including $37 off a basic yearly subscription that normally runs for $69.99.

SimpliSafe, meanwhile, has "discontinued its existing relationship with the NRA," according to a spokeswoman. The company, which had provided discounts on its home safety products to NRA members, did not respond to a request for further comment.

Similarly, insurer MetLife tweeted Friday that it has "decided to end our discount program with the NRA."

Automotive website TrueCar and rental car company Hertz also tweeted about ending NRA programs.

(A spokeswoman from Best Western Hotels & Resorts, cited by some in social media as a brand that has abandoned the NRA, says the company hasn't had an affiliation with the group since 2014.)

Gene Grabowski, a partner at crisis communications firm KGlobal, says the movement is gaining momentum. "What we're seeing here is that what couldn't be accomplished politically is going to be accomplished in the marketplace," he says.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. But on social media, the group attempted to change the conversation by targeting the mainstream media. One of the NRA's Twitter accounts this week posted an incendiary video starring guns rights activist Colion Noir saying "the mainstream media love mass shootings" because they help ratings.

"Finally, we see a chink in the armour of the NRA—we thought they were invincible," says Grabowski. The group's strategy might be effective in the short-term but less sustainable as protests gain steam and brands back away, he says.

Of course, some marketers have taken a stand in the past on gun control and not much has changed. Five years ago, in one example, Starbucks declared that guns are not welcome in its stores.

This time, the shift among corporations appears to be more widespread. But even now, companies ending their NRA partnerships have avoided making any public criticisms of the group.

Some have called for companies to take more aggressive measures to stem gun sales.

A New York Times columnist suggested on Monday, for example, that banks including JPMorgan Chase and credit card companies like Mastercard could set "new rules" for gun sales by refusing to participate. Financial institutions have not bitten so far.

Mastercard doesn't "permit merchants to engage in unlawful activity on our network," a spokeswoman said in a statement. "When we're made aware of any illegal activity or violations of our rules, we work with law enforcement and merchants' banks to shut down those efforts." The Purchase, N.Y.-based company does not have a business relationship with the NRA. Visa, similarly, said the company follows the law with its transactions.

Citi said it does not have visibility into the purchases of its customers. Chase did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chase's chief marketing officer, Kristin Lemkau, is among a group of high-profile executives that formed a group called the Gun Safety Alliance in the wake of last year's mass shooting in Las Vegas. The organization, which calls itself a "coalition of the willing of concerned citizens from the technology, entertainment, advertising, media and marketing industries," is calling for stricter gun safety laws like universal background checks. Members of the group have said they are acting as individuals, not on behalf of their companies.

Lemkau has used her personal Twitter account to rally support for the alliance.

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