The marketing message behind this 1972 Daisy rifle ad is clear—guns bring families together. A nostalgic dad and mom look on as their three sons gleefully unwrap guns on Christmas morning. Substitute the guns with any other product and this firearm ad echoes other familiar advertising memes that Americans encounter daily on television and radio, on the Internet and in print. Faux-families on every cereal box in the supermarket wear the same corny smiles and seem to whisper the same thing: “This is it—this is the product that will secure your happiness.” Though designed to injure and kill, guns are also commercial products. Over the past century, gun ad campaigns have seized upon all of our desires and insecurities, solidifying guns’ role in American culture.
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Since the tragic December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many Americans have begun to re-evaluate their relationship with guns. Congress is once again considering a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons. Still, scarcely a month after the Newtown tragedy, thousands gathered at Guns Across America rallies carrying signs that portrayed the gun as an American institution, a necessary safety precaution, a tool and even a God-given right.
Guns—and gun violence—have undeniably shaped America’s cultural landscape. Guns have been used throughout America’s history to oppress at least as often as they have been tools of liberation. Long before white colonists defended their rights with muskets during the Revolutionary War, they wielded guns to deprive Native Americans of their land and rights. But in the twenty-first century, Americans cling to guns for reasons that are as much the products of cultural imagination as they are of fact. Since the emergence of national brands in the 1890s, advertising has not only reflected American culture but actively shaped it as well. The evolution of gun advertising from the turn of the century to the present might break down into three phases, demonstrating America’s changing relationship with guns.
PHASE 1: TAKING AIM AT THE AMERICAN DREAM
Between 1900 and 1920, gun advertisements could be described as black and white—both literally and figuratively. Matter of fact advertisements from newly fledged national brands like Remington and The Ithaca Gun Company emphasized name recognition and quality parts. Images in mail order catalogues and promotional materials often featured drawings of the guns, unaccompanied by human figures. In the 1920s, gun advertisements became more colorful; full-page illustrations accompanied by persuasive copy writing explained the virtues of guns as tools for self-defense, game hunting and pest eradication. Seeking to expand to new markets, post-1920 advertisements marketed guns to men as items they could buy for the women and children in their lives—either for sport or for self-defense. During World War II, advertisements began to employ patriotic themes and to reference distant American history, especially heroes of the American Revolution and the western frontier. These new ads cited guns as a purchasable good that connected the past to the present. And while Davy Crockett fever swept the nation, toy guns and accessories like Disney’s Official Davy Crockett Powder Horn linked American boys of all ethnic backgrounds to the founding values of the nation. Color advertisements from the 1940s and 1950s often pandered to the ideal of the nuclear family and played on stereotypical gender roles.
PHASE II: HOME ALONE
In the 1980s and 1990s, marketers combatted a slump in gun sales by reaching out to new niche markets. While advertisements for firearms occasionally reached the masses through television and newspapers, they tended to congregate instead in the pages of special interest magazines like American Handgunner, Combat Handguns, Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement and Guns of the Old West. While guns, in the first half of the twentieth-century, had been marketed to men as excellent gifts for their children and wives, gun advertisements in the 1980s and 1990s began to target women, and even children, directly. As more American women chose to remain single, controversial ads cited guns as necessary for personal safety. Emphasizing self-defense, similar advertisements reached out to people of color and the LGBT community. A surge of petitions to the Federal Trade Commission complained of false advertising, as statistical research stated that owning a gun increased chances of death. Although these petitions drew a great deal of media attention, the FTC ultimately refused to regulate gun advertisements.
PHASE III: MEDIA ASSAULT
Since 2002, advertisers have found success using military and anti-government related themes to market guns. Gun advertising in the 2000s has highlighted new technology and benefited from the rise in gaming. Increasingly sinister themes in gun advertising emerged during the same era that violent first-person shooter and war games came into their heyday. Like many other Americans—especially young, white males—Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old responsible for the Newtown tragedy, frequently spent hours playing violent video games.
Over the years, generations of Americans absorbed and internalized the messages sold by gun companies through print advertisements. In 2013, the entertainment industry is the best source of advertising for weapon manufacturers. Gun advertising, which is now embedded in violent video games, movies and television, has grown both more pervasive and more subtle In 2013, American consumers are undoubtedly too skeptical to fall for the Technicolor tactics of the 1972 Daisy rifle ad. But thanks to pervasive media violence, it’s now possible to participate in gun culture without ever pulling a trigger. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, companies like Time Warner Cable, Groupon, and Dick’s Sporting Goods have re-evaluated their role in gun marketing. But in an America where gun culture has become omnipresent it is doubtful that advertising restrictions will effect societal change.
In America, where five percent of the world population owns half of the world’s guns, we can almost anticipate gun violence. According to gun advertisements spanning the past century, guns have the power to make a boy into a man, a house into a home and a recent immigrant into a “real” American. Like advertisements for yogurt, dish soap, luxury perfume and nearly any other product under the sun, gun ads promise that a better life is just one purchase away. But guns, like most goods, are only as essential as the consumer believes them to be.
THE IMAGES BELOW REPRESENT GUN ADVERTISING THROUGH THE AGES
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.