Trigger happy TV. Can advertising make a difference to America's gun laws?


by Magnus Shaw.

Watching telly a few days ago, I saw Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony at The White House. I was delighted, because had Romney won, I wouldn't be watching the TV, I'd be trying to arrange for a rocket to take me to another planet. Any planet.

I'm sure there are many items on a President's desk at the start of a second term, but we can pretty sure gun control isn't far behind the economy on Obama's list. Of course, it wouldn't be this way had the untold horror of Sandy Hook not occurred so soon after the presidential election. But it did, and now America must focus on their obsession with firearms.

Speak to any American and, whether they are for or against the widespread public ownership of guns, they will confirm that firearms mean much more than cold metal and cordite in the USA. For whatever reason, the gun has come to represent the citizen's detachment from the state. It has become an icon of freedom.

If President Obama wishes to make even a dent in this national psychology (and he does) he faces an uphill struggle. He's going to need every trick in the book and in America, that usually starts with advertising.

I was in the States in the weeks before the election, and political advertising on the US networks is something we wouldn't recognise in the UK. Where we have party political broadcasts, placed at highly regulated points in the schedules - and now, very tentative debates - the USA has a bombardment of ads, voiced by serious sounding men, running down opponents with harsh accusations and elaborate graphics. No American politician ever achieved a moment of power without recourse to the impact of expensive and constant marketing messages. Of course, massive US corporations gain their wealth and customers in exactly the same way.

So clearly, the population is massively influenced by the messages interrupting their favourite shows every two minutes or so (if you've ever seen a US TV channel, you'll know how confusing the unannounced commercial breaks can be to a British viewer). Surely then,  it follows that a well-funded, well written and intense advertising campaign could begin to sway the gun enthusiasts from their cherished pistols and rifles? Some commentators on this side of the Atlantic certainly think so, and have publicly said as much. I don't think they're cynically pitching for the work - the blogs and columns I've read seem to be sincere in their belief that marketing can help solve the issue. That said, I do think they're wrong.

We all know advertising has the ability to lure and persuade consumers towards a particular brand or service. Indeed, as I've outlined, it can even create presidents. But to imbue it with the power to dismantle a tradition and article of faith some two and a half centuries in the making, is to indulge in a huge overestimation.

What would these advertisements say exactly? Re-showing the heartbreak and outrage resulting from Sandy Hook or the preceding Aurora cinema massacre, would only serve to convince those in favour of private weapons their arms are necessary to protect themselves and their families. Detailing the many atrocities this country has suffered would merely add weight to the argument for more gun ownership. What's more, any gun-control advertising campaign would be met with a similar but opposite effort. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of America's wealthiest and most powerful pressure groups. Mass TV advertising is well within their grasp. Ultimately, gun-control advertising would be seen as emanating from the Democratic Party and the even the Oval Office - the exact bodies the NRA and their acolytes mistrust so avidly.

All an advertising campaign of this kind would achieve is an enormous, unnecessary media spend and much ill-considered bitter argument - replacing measured, cool and intelligent debate.

To American gun owners, their weapons connect them with their nation's founding fathers. They see it as their patriotic duty to follow the rights given in the second amendment of their constitution and bear arms. (Actually, the amendment provides for private weaponry as part of a regulated militia, but that is frequently overlooked). In essence, like the flag and the vote, the gun is part of what makes them American.

Therefore, however urgent the need for change in American firearms legislation, the path to tighter regulation will be long and laborious. It will require patience, determination, resilience and understanding.

No matter how much we wish this brutally real issue could be fixed with marketing, it can't. So we'd be wise to acknowledge the limitations of our craft and accept that some briefs are too important to be left with an advertising agency.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant


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