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In a Culture of Mass Shootings, the Ad Industry Shares the Blame

The Newtown Massacre Is a Reminder That Gun Marketing Needs Some Serious Rethinking

By Published on . 12

There's a "dirty little truth" about the roots of American gun violence, and it's concealed by the media, said National Rifle Association official Wayne LaPierre at his organization's first press conference after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre: the "callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry" of video games. It was no surprise when Politico wrote that the school shooter, Adam Lanza, had been a frequent player of violent video games.

But what about the advertising industry? Does it play a role, too?

Clearly it did in the past, with ads much more in the public eye than we have today. Gun ads aimed at teenage boys used to be commonplace. A revealing article on the blogosphere features a dozen or so old print ads that are shocking by today's standards. Like the one of a freckle-faced boy holding a gun received as a Christmas present and exclaiming "Gee Dad ... a Winchester!" The author, Solveig Grothe, writes that the ad reveals "the nonchalance with which Americans then, and to a large degree now, approached weapons."

Today the advertising is largely kept out of the mainstream's eyes. After a flurry of petitions to the Federal Trade Commission against gun ads in the 1980s and early 1990s, writes author Tom Zeller, the industry saw the writing on the wall -- though the feds took no action -- and decided to confine its advertising to its extant consumer base, mostly through hunting magazines, gun and ammunition publications and local newspapers and television stations in areas where gun ownership is common.

But still gun ads are blamed for fueling a cult of masculinity that helps to drive the violent culture. In the Huffington Post, Sanjay Sanghoee accuses the gun industry of trying to recreate the cigarette industry's Marlboro Man: "From guns that radiate masculinity and war to marketing campaigns calculated to bring out the inner John Wayne in all of us, the industry consistently pushes guns on us just like tobacco companies sold cigarettes."

A perfect example was on gun manufacturer Bushmaster's website. Bushmaster is the maker of the assault rifle used in Newtown. A company promotion awarded "man cards" to visitors who could prove their masculinity by answering a series of "manhood" questions. Do you eat tofu? Can you change a tire? Have you ever watched figure skating "on purpose"? After 20 first-graders were massacred in their classrooms, the page was removed.

Outside of the gun industry itself, video games provide a thriving sanctuary for gun promotion.The New York Times recently reported that , "Makers of firearms and related gear have come to see video games as a way to promote their brands to millions of potential customers." Electronic Arts, maker of the "Medal of Honor" game, featured links to the websites of the McMillan Group, the maker of a high-powered sniper's rifle, and Magpul, a company that sells magazines and accessories for assault weapons.

In an appeal to women, the NRA's Women's Network, sponsored by Smith & Wesson, provides links to online retailers delivering fashion and networking opportunities. One such retailer, GunGoddess.com, offers original T-shirt designs, engraved bullet-casing jewelry and sparkly, leather gun sleeves.

But a just-published study by the Pew Research Center confirms that gun ownership remains overwhelming a white male "thing." When asked which was more important, to protect the right to own guns or to control ownership, 51% of whites males chose the former. For black males, that number fell to 24%; a Pew study in April had found that the number of Latino males preferring gun-ownership rights was just 29%.

Of course, any marketer worth his or her salt would want to understand what it is that is driving this obsession that white men seem to have with guns. Is it past advertising? Is it the obsession with masculinity?

If you asked Michael Moore, of "Bowling for Columbine" fame, he would tell you fear. In a blog for the Huntington Post last July, in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater shootings, Moore wrote, "We are an easily frightened people and it is easy to manipulate us with fear." Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College who studies trends in gun advertising, writes that since the 1990s "we've seen a new kind of gun advertising in which self-defense is the selling point." In the Pew study, among gun owners, 68% felt that gun ownership does more to protect people from being victims than putting people's safety at risk.

One result of the Newtown tragedy is that some marketers, under heavy pressure, are backing away from guns. According to The Wall Street Journal, retail chain Dick's Sporting Goods suspended sales of semiautomatic rifles at its 480 stores. Walmart deleted from its website a listing for the same. And private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management said it would try to sell Freedom Group Inc., the manufacturer of the Bushmaster gun used by the Newtown perpetrator.

A shift in the public's attitude toward stricter gun control might provoke more change in our industry -- either further abandonment of the gun industry, or perhaps the development of more responsible ways to present the product. But recent poll results on gun-control legislation are mixed. For those of us opposed to guns, who wish our industry had nothing to do with them, there is still a long way to go.

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