RECALLING A SIMPLER TIME WHEN AD BIZ TACKLED THE GUN ISSUE

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"Guns must go!" was the headline of an editorial we ran after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Nothing we've done before or since has provoked a bigger response.

Sid Bernstein, who wrote the editorial, would have been just as outraged over the shootings at the Colorado high school last month, but nowadays there are so many other factors that could have influenced the killings, everything from videogames to rap lyrics, that maybe he wouldn't have been so unequivocal today.

Sid, the longtime editor and then publisher of our family newspaper, and my Dad, the late G.D. Crain Jr., who founded our company, worked side-by-side over the years to build Ad Age. Then my brother Keith and I got involved, and my mother, Gertrude Crain, got more involved, and then Sid's son, Hank, joined the company. The Bernsteins and the Crains made a great team, if I may say so, and it's hard for me to believe Sid passed away in 1993, and just the other week we had a retirement party for Hank.

Sid always believed advertising people should not be oblivious to the world around them, and he summoned them to action in his editorial. Boy, did they respond!

"Can there be any doubt anywhere that violence and contempt for the law are doing their rotten best to tear American society apart?" Sid's editorial began.

He urged the advertising business "to get behind a massive effort to reduce the tremendous hazards of a gun-riddled society, and to get at it right now."

Our editorial concluded: "A million things need doing, and they must be done as quickly as is humanly possible. But first of all, GUNS MUST GO as the unrestrained, unregulated, unrestricted instrument of lethal violence.

"In this specific, definite area, the resources of the advertising business can be brought to bear with devastating effect quickly and easily. In the strongest possible terms, we urge them to get at it.

"GUNS MUST GO!"

We received an avalanche of letters and comments. David Ogilvy offered additional ideas to stop violence: Toy marketers shouldn't be allowed to make toy guns "just as candy makers no longer make candy cigarettes;" the Advertising Council should "mount a campaign urging parents not to let their children point guns, even toy guns (I was never allowed to point a gun as a child);" and advertisers and agencies should "stop buying time on programs of violence."

But Rosser Reeves wrote us: "It is the first time I have ever seen Advertising Age step out of their field . . . What's more, it is not terribly becoming."

Lots of our readers agreed with Mr. Reeves in much stronger language: "Cancel my subscription. The editorial is the most ridiculous and emotionally packed piece of political propaganda that I have seen in a long time." But Vice President Hubert Humphrey supported our stand: "I expect some people will tell you that Advertising Age ought to stick to advertising and not get involved in substantive issues. I, for one, think Advertising Age and its readers must get involved in the critical issues facing America . . . Advertising Age and the advertising community of this nation must continue to urge effective action."

The old North Advertising in Chicago created anti-gun ads that it offered our readers (one read "Buy now, kill later"; another was headlined "More and more people are buying guns to protect themselves from more and more people who are buying guns"). In the first few weeks, North received more than 600 requests for the material -- mostly from coupons we ran -- for the print, TV and radio versions of the ads. "Join the all-out campaign to get Congress to enact more stringent legislation regulating possession of guns," we headlined a layout showing the North ads and carrying the coupon.

I know it made us all feel better that we were at least doing something about the senseless slaying of Bobby Kennedy. But those were simpler times.

I haven't heard any voices of outrage raised in the advertising business this time around, but maybe too many of us think that not a whole lot will change no matter how involved we get.

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