It's the anti-authority feeling of gun ownership that needs to be addressed
by Aaron Klemz
Dec 17, 2012, 10:00 AM

Killing James Dean

Once upon a time, the tobacco lobby was bulletproof. The scientific and societal consensus was that tobacco was harmful to health, but Big Tobacco’s well-organized lobbyists and pernicious marketing blocked reform. The downfall of Big Tobacco’s stranglehold on America holds a lesson for those who seek to implement meaningful gun regulations in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. The lesson is about marketing.

Smoking was always the province of rebels. James Dean was the iconic smoker – young, cool, anti-authoritarian. The last adjective is the one that made smoking such a difficult behavior to regulate. The more you cracked down, especially on youth smoking, the more socially desirable it became. To smoke was to take a stand against The Man, against adult authority figures, against growing up. Regulation could make it harder to acquire cigarettes, but as long as smoking was shorthand for rebellion, its popularity continued.

The contemporary marketing of guns is similar to the dilemma posed to anti-smoking advocates. Guns have become “freedom objects,” standing against authority. Owning a gun is a way to show you are fighting The Man. “Armed Citizens” are a proto-police force, necessary because authority fails to protect us from criminals. Gun advocates cloak their reaction to the Newtown killings in this rhetoric, either lamenting that someone at the school wasn’t armed like them, or solemnly intoning that “sadly, this is the price we pay for our freedom.”

As long as gun ownership is perceived as a blow against authority, it will be nearly impossible to regulate. Even whispers of reasonable gun regulation cause gun and ammo sales to spike. And the truth is that we already have so many guns in circulation in America (270 million or more) that regulations to slow or end the sales of assault-style weapons or high capacity magazines won’t address the surfeit of them in America today.

Ironically, you hear these arguments from gun enthusiasts against regulation. “It wouldn’t have stopped this shooter,” “assault weapons bans are just about cosmetic differences,” and “you can’t stop criminals from getting guns illegally” are all versions of “we won the culture war, so your laws will make no difference.”

The National Rifle Association is a trade association, tasked with maximizing the sale of guns by gun manufacturers. They face a similar problem to the one faced by Big Tobacco, an aging population and a shrinking number of domestic consumers for their products. Their marketing strategy has been to maximize fear of victimization (despite a falling crime rate,) feed the anti-authority complex of owners, and offer them a variety of guns to fill the gaps. While the number of gun-owning households has declined, the number of guns sold continues to increase.

We need a marketing campaign that addresses gun ownership the way the truth® campaign addressed youth smoking. truth® stressed the billions of dollars of profits made by tobacco companies selling a deadly product. The strategy was to transform youth smoking from an anti-establishment act of protest into a choice to let powerful interests use you as a puppet and then toss you aside. One key feature of this campaign was to reveal the marketing and manufacturing tactics of Big Tobacco. Funded in large measure by the tobacco industry itself via settlement of a lawsuit, the truth® campaign reduced youth smoking by 22% over a couple of years. More importantly, it shifted the ground on smoking by depriving tobacco of its anti-authority veneer. Once it was revealed that cigarette manufacturers were The Man, smoking ceased to be a blow against The Man.

While the analogy isn’t perfect, it’s certainly apt. The conversation in the wake of Newtown will certainly steer toward laws and regulations, and that is part of a solution to mass shootings. But this is really a marketing war that gun manufacturers are winning, not just a lobbying battle. One key component of our response to Newtown is that we need to make it clear that gun ownership is not about freedom, but about maximizing profits for a dirty industry.

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