Head-in-the-sand gun toting Second Amendment advocates are fond of saying that guns don’t kill people, people do. But what about gun marketing—how much is it contributing to gun-related violence?
Gun makers depend heavily on marketing to sell their wares. Smith & Wesson’s parent in its fiscal year 2021 annual report wrote that it crossed the $1 billion threshold in sales for the first time in its history—which spans over a century and a half.
It also said it relied heavily on marketing to keep its brand top of mind among potential buyers and that it plans to spend more in the coming years, particularly on digital channels.
It said up to now it has relied heavily on print and television ads.
In FY 2021 advertising costs for the firm were $12.5 million. Not a lot compared to P&G and other big ad spends. But enough to cross that $1 billion barrier and to sell 2.6 million new guns during that period. It also led in selling firearms over the 2016-2020 period with over 8 million sold, according to one estimate I saw.
I’m not sure what restrictions if any are in place on the marketing of guns to consumers. But the New York Times in a recent article noted that more than one company markets to young people by glorifying guns in videogame-style ads.
Anything in gun maker messaging that whiffs of marketing to minors should be banned.
In its twitter feed this past Mother’s Day Smith & Wesson posted a picture of a mom instructing her young daughter who was on a firing range, blasting away with a pistol. Smiles all around. Yeah, I would count that as marketing to minors. I guess the gun makers feel like they have to—that's the audience that will sustain future sales for the industry, right?
Maybe gun makers should focus their marketing efforts on targets like the military, police and security firms that guard banks, etc. And, like Big Tobacco, maybe the media gun makers can buy should be restricted. When was the last time you saw a cigarette ad anywhere?
And maybe agencies that work on gun marketing should think about what contribution they’re making to the gun-related death toll in this country, which topped 45,000 in 2020. That’s 5,000 more than all the U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean war.
It’s hard to know who those agencies are. In its annual report Smith & Wesson reported that it goes to great lengths to protect the identities of all of its vendors and that it would suffer great reputational harm should those secrets be revealed.
I know many in the agency community support sensible gun law reform. And I know it’s one thing to believe that and quite another to make it happen.
No long ago I recall Mark Read, CEO of WPP being called out in a public forum for his company doing work for BP, the big British oil company, amidst the planet’s climate crisis. Read responded that oil companies and others with interests in fossil fuel production can’t just be shunned and do have a right to tell their stories and explain how they plan to help ease the crisis.
I think there’s something to that—if the effort is genuine.
Guns aren’t going away and the best we can hope for is stricter but reasonable gun legislation—like thorough background checks and bans on certain types of military-style weapons. Yes, it’s an uphill today given the polarized political climate. But political winds change.
And smart gun makers will embrace more sensible legislation than we have in place today. At some point America will tire of all the senseless bloodletting and it will be in the interests of companies with skin in the game to participate in the process that will curb some of their activities.
And they’ll need savvy ad agencies and pr firms to help tell their stories.
That would mean breaking from the NRA, which screams Second Amendment anytime anyone mentions the possibility of rethinking gun laws.
Lawsuits will keep piling up. Remington recently agreed to pay $73 million to settle a suit brought by families of the victims in the Sandy Hook shooting—a suit that called the company to task for its videogame style of marketing.