I find advertising in general extraordinarily interesting. I was a devoted follower of the TV show Mad Men and I teach about advertising in my classes.
Advertising is a major part of our culture, and of course it is a major part of gun culture as well. When I watch gun TV shows, I am as drawn to the commercials as to the shows themselves. As part of my research, I am analyzing advertising in gun magazines over the past 100 years to document the rise of Gun Culture 2.0.
Without question, advertisements do not simply sell products. They sell certain ideas and ideals which they try to get consumers – often subconsciously – to attach to their products. The male protector is one such ideal I have seen recently, and ideas about masculinity (and femininity) are frequently sold.
Many have looked to Bushmaster’s “Man Card” ad as selling a particular understanding of masculinity in connection with the AR-15 platform rifle. This was especially so in the wake of the mass murders in Newtown, CT, since the murderer happened to use a Bushmaster XM15-E2S (see, for example, the Huffington Post story the day after the event).
But does advertising like Bushmaster’s lead to gun violence? The question of the connection between gun advertising selling masculine ideals and violence committed by people with guns was raised again last week in a story about the lawsuit brought by the families of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School against Bushmaster (or Remington which owns Bushmaster, or Freedom Group which owns Remington, or Cerberus Capital which owns Freedom Group – not sure which).
The US-office of The Guardian of London reported that a Connecticut judge will allow the Sandy Hook families to see the internal records of how gun companies market “military-style rifles.” The author of the article, Lois Beckett, wrote:
In the wake of the shooting, some family members of victims questioned whether the gun companies’ aggressively macho advertising of military-style rifles was irresponsible, and whether gun companies were intentionally targeting their product to troubled, violent young men like Lanza.
If what the plaintiffs suggest turns out to be true, then regardless of our views of guns generally, we must all conclude that BUSHMASTER IS THE WORST MARKETER IN THE HISTORY OF GUNS.
Why? Because available data suggests their strategy utterly failed.
Including the Sandy Hook massacre of 26 people, the total number of Americans who were murdered with all rifles (including but not limited to AR-15 platform rifles) in 2012 was 298 – 2.3% of the 12,888 murders that year. Both the number (332) and proportion (2.6%) of murders with rifles were higher in 2011 than in 2012, and the number (367) and proportion (2.8%) were higher in 2010 than in 2011. (According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.)
At best, Bushmaster’s alleged “aggressively macho advertising of military-style rifles” and “intentionally targeting their products to troubled, violent young men” kept the rifle homicide rate from going down even faster than it did. We can never know what would have happened if Bushmaster hadn’t run its Man Card ad.
But, to me it seems much more likely that Bushmaster’s marketing is not targeted to “troubled, violent young men” and therefore has no effect on the rifle homicide rate.
A more likely culprit than gun advertising in understanding mass homicides is the (largely anti-gun) news media. Perhaps the Sandy Hook families should be suing ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN for so excessively publicizing mass murders that they foster copy-cats? Immediately after the Sandy Hook homicides, The Atlantic ran a story suggesting that “The Media Needs to Stop Inspiring Copycat Murders.” More recently there was a host of media coverage in the fall of 2015, such one in Mother Jones — like The Atlantic, no friend of guns — about “How the Media Inspires Mass Shooters.”
I also don’t think Bushmaster’s ads target the “troubled, violent young men” who use handguns with extraordinary frequency to defend their “manhood” and “respect” according to what sociologist Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street.”
Gun advertising also fails to reach the many people who use knives rather than guns to enforce the code of the street.
I have sympathy for the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. I don’t know how I would react to the loss of one of my children or loved ones. I am sure I would lash out with anger and experience major depression, and then want to do something about it. But a lawsuit goes beyond an emotional outburst, and seems to me to be a waste of time, energy, and money that could be put to better use – perhaps in trying to “cure violence” in the places it is most prevalent.