Marketing Ethics & the AR-15: Fear, Patriotism and the Zombie Apocalypse
There are plenty of products and services on the market that do harm. As marketers, we have industry regulation and the law to guide us. But what about the ethical considerations of marketing salty snacks to children, antidepressants to the worried well, and gaming products to the poor and desperate? Is there any room for ethics in marketing? Do the ends always justify the means? In this article, we look at how the marketing of one weapon transformed the fortunes of America’s firearms industry. The AR-15 is one of the most controversial products of recent times. Its continued sale raising questions in the Senate and House of Representatives. The marketing methods used to promote the AR-15 have certainly been successful. They have also been the subject of intense criticism and legal action. So, what part do marketing ethics play when lives and livelihoods are at stake? Is it a question of personal morality, a job for the law-makers or a matter of corporate responsibility?
The AR-15 is the civilian variant of the military M-16 assault rifle and M4 carbine. It is a lightweight, robust and powerful weapon. Back in 1994, President Bill Clinton imposed a temporary ban on assault rifles. However, the ban expired in 2004. Since then sales of AR-15s have steadily climbed. Sales peaked during the 2016 presidential election campaign, where it was widely assumed that a Hilary Clinton victory would usher in a new era of gun control. The subsequent election of Donald Trump has seen gun sales drop and prices tumble (the Trump slump).
The popularity of the AR-15 has come at a human cost. The weapon has been used in a number of mass shootings such as the Mandalay Bay Resort, Las Vegas, 58 people killed and 489 wounded (the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history) and Sandy Hook Elementary School, Colorado, 20 children killed and six members of staff.
The CAP Code
In the UK, marketers and advertisers must comply with the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) code that covers both broadcast and non-broadcast media including online. The CAP code covers everything from tobacco advertising to online gambling and includes a section on firearms. Under the CAP code, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) can impose a wide range of sanctions against those who break the rules. It can also refer cases to other regulatory bodies such as Ofcom and Trading Standards. In America, the Federal Trade Commission performs a similar role to the ASA in protecting consumers. However, the rules around the advertising and marketing of guns is quite different.
The Right to Bear Arms
Mindful of First and Second Amendment rights, there is very light-touch regulation of firearms marketing across the US. There are also some rather strange legal anomalies. Federal law says it is illegal for anyone under 18 years of age to own a handgun. However, many states impose no restrictions on the ownership of rifles. Children cannot legally buy rifles, but they can use pester power to persuade an adult to buy one for them. To some this must raise ethical questions while to others it represents an opportunity. In a declining market, the AR-15 has become a dominant brand by developing new market segments such as woman and children.
Back in the 1970s, about half of US families owned a gun. That figure has dropped to about one-third today. With its traditional market in decline, gun manufacturers needed to seed new markets. A reflection of this change in the firearms market, the Armalite small arms company was founded in the 1950s and ceased trading in the 1980s. In 1996, the Armalite trademark was revived, lending its name to a new generation of military-styled tactical rifles for civilian use. In fact, the AR-15 has become something of a generic term for all such weapons.
In 2004, 107,000 AR-15s were produced. By 2015, that number had grown to 1.2 million. Today, it’s estimated that one in every five firearms purchased by Americans is an AR-15-styled rifle. Over eight million such weapons are now in circulation. While gun ownership remains in decline, the average number of firearms per owner has increased to five. What’s more, gun sales tend to rise immediately after mass shootings driven by fear of further attacks and the prospect of new firearms legislation. For a mature, saturated market, the US firearms business is still worth an estimated $13.5 billion, annually.
American gun manufacturers have been successful in cultivating new audiences for a new type of weapon. Besides traditional gun owners, typically white men, millennials, gamers, women and children have provided fertile new segments. The industry and National Rifle Association (NRA) have heavily promoted high-tech, military-style rifles to a younger demographic for field sports and target shooting. In a Venn diagram, millennials, gamers, women and children all overlap when it comes to using virtual assault rifles and similar military hardware in a wide range of computer games such as the Call of Duty series. This creates familiarity and desire.
The Zombie Apocalypse
Millennials have grown up seeing AR-15 type weapons on the evening news, carried by local law enforcement, on TV shows and in movies. The AR-15 also appears in another favourite of popular culture, the zombie apocalypse. Zombies act as a convenient metaphor for many of our fears, such as terrorism, violent crime and the collapse of social cohesion. Zombie movies, TV shows, games, books, graphic novels and events are big business. More about the zombie apocalypse a little later.
Women and Children First
One area where gun manufacturers and the pro-gun lobby have concentrated their marketing efforts is with millennial women. In 2017, around 22% of American women owned a gun according to Pew Research. The rise in female gun ownership can be attributed to a variety of reasons from personal protection and sports to family tradition. In 2016, the NRA spent $6.5 million to encourage more gun ownership among younger women. The AR-15 is ideal for women and children because it’s compact and lightweight. All-women gun clubs and shooting leagues have sprung up across the United States. Gun manufactures sponsor a range of women’s gun ownership groups and events. Ruger sponsors “The Women’s Gun Show” a popular weekly podcast. Women’s groups actively participate in marketing focus groups to help gun manufacturers develop better designed, lightweight firearms for the female market. For many women, gun ownership is simply empowering and fun.
The AR-15 has come a long way from its origins in the paddy fields of Vietnam and mountains of Afghanistan. It’s military heritage is certainly part of its attraction. It’s also a sleek, versatile, technically advanced and even beautiful weapon. Another great selling point is that every AR-15 owner can personalise their weapon with a dazzling array of accessories. Alternatively, you can build your rifle from scratch with a variety of barrels, stocks, scopes, grips, rails and magazines. Rugged, multi-purpose, reliable and lightweight, it’s easy to see why the AR-15 is such a popular choice. The gun can also be easily camouflaged or garishly decorated with customised gun-skins. According to the America’s 1st Freedom website: “Owning an AR-15 is as uniquely American as baseball, apple pie and the Second Amendment.”
Because the AR-15 is as much a platform as it is an individual rifle, easily customised, prices range from around $600 to over $2,000. However, the recent slump in gun sales and over-production has seen prices drop to $399.
Positioning: A World of Violent Extremes
The background to the positioning strategy of the AR-15 has been one of almost constant conflict, starting with the attacks of 9/11. Since then America has prosecuted two major wars, endured natural disasters, numerous mass shootings, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and Islamic terrorism. Interestingly, Americans continue to believe that the national crime rate is also rising, although it has actually been falling since the early 1990s. However, much crime goes unreported. Research suggests that only 42% of violent crime is reported to the police. Unfortunately, the clearance rate (crimes that get solved) is equally low. More than half of all violent crimes go unpunished. Perhaps it is no surprise that millennials feel anxious and threatened. Our increased reliance on social media and filter bubble theory might go some way to explain why so many people feel isolated, and are quick to adopt extreme political and social views.
Using our Venn diagram analogy, the AR-15 sits at the centre of three intersecting circles. The AR-15 is the modern sporting rifle, ideal for target shooting and hunting. It’s size, weight and firepower makes it the perfect weapon for personal protection and home defence. Finally, for many gun owners the AR-15’s military heritage, reliability and adaptability have made it “America’s rifle”. For those people opposed to gun ownership, the AR-15 has become a symbol for everything that is wrong with American society.
Gun manufacturers and powerful lobby groups like the NRA believe that AR-15-styled weapons embody the traditional values of America. To many gun owners, the AR-15 represents freedom, strength and self-reliance. Of course, gun ownership can also be a lot of fun. After all, modern sporting rifles are meant for recreational use, not mass murder. However, the marketing and advertising messages seem to focus more on a dystopian world of threats than sports and leisure.
Promotion: Marketing on Trial
Back in 2005, federal law gave gun manufacturers immunity from prosecution when their products are used to commit crimes. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop the families of those killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School from taking legal action against the makers of the AR-15 used by Adam Lanza in the massacre. The families’ argument is that gun-maker Remington and its supply chain were negligent in their marketing of a military assault rifle to civilians. At the time of writing, the case remains in the US court system, and Remington has since filed for Chapter 11, bankruptcy protection, faced with mounting debts and falling sales.
Made for the Free
The marketing and advertising campaign at the centre of the Sandy Hook court case promotes the Bushmaster branded AR-15 as an adaptive combat rifle. A series of ads feature an image of the rifle with the tag line: “Consider your man card reissued.” A common theme tends to run through all AR-15 marketing and advertising, regardless of the gun manufacturer: freedom and independence. Advertising slogans such as “made for the free” and “forces of opposition, bow down” are often accompanied with provocative images of men and women in military fatigues.
Traditional Marketing Media
Gun manufacturers and their channel partners have used traditional marketing techniques for decades. Print advertising in popular firearms publications such as Guns and Ammo. Trade stands at any of 5,000 gun shows held across the United States every year. Sponsorship of shooting events, gun leagues and training clinics such as Run and Gun. Glossy brochures, direct mail, promotions, offers, loyalty schemes and competitions all have a place in the gun-makers lexicon of marketing activities. Nevertheless, the firearms industry actually spends very modest amounts on marketing and advertising compared with other consumer categories. In 2015, gun-maker Smith and Wesson spent around $20 million on marketing. In contrast, Kellogg spent $477 million on advertising across the US during 2016. Of course, gun-makers and dealers have clearly defined target audiences, and gun owners are enthusiastic, loyal customers.
Beating Prohibition: Digital and Social
Although gun advertising is prohibited on Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, gun-makers and retailers have been able to harness digital media for marketing and sales purposes. Email, search engine optimisation (SEO), content marketing, influencer marketing (word of mouth), social platforms and affiliate schemes are all used to promote AR-15s. The Danger Close Weapons Media Group claims it can reach 77 million gun enthusiasts per month, mainly through a combination of blogs and social media groups. A search of the hashtag #AR15 on Twitter between 8th March and 8th April 2018 using Keyhole.co found 702 posts, 637 users and a reach of 3.9 million views. There are literally millions of photos of AR-15s shared on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Tumblr every year.
The Hero’s Journey
As we saw earlier, the AR-15 appears in numerous computer games, TV shows and movies by both accident and design. We have also seen that the AR-15’s military mystique is often used in advertising campaigns. At the centre of these campaigns, the gun owner is the hero. Beset by challenges and dangers, the hero can emerge triumphant when equipped with an AR-15. The hero’s journey is a common device in literature, the arts and entertainment industry. It’s also a staple of the zombie apocalypse.
Case Study: Zombie Max™ Ammunition
The zombie industry generated $6 billion between 2009 and 2013 from entertainment, leisure and merchandise. So, what better vehicle to advertise ammunition and the AR-15? Nebraska based IdeaBank Marketing developed an integrated campaign for Hornady’s range of Zombie Max™ ammunition. First, IdeaBank Marketing developed an appropriate logo and packaging design for Zombie Max™. Next, they executed an online product launch starting with a teaser email campaign. They also used social media, video and the web. The campaign was highly successful. In fact, it was the most successful product launch in Hornady’s history. It generated $400,000 worth of sales (10% of the company’s total revenue for 2011). Daily website traffic doubled for Hornady.com, and the promotional video got 125,000 views in its first week. As of today, the video has clocked-up 1,171,000 views on YouTube.
Legislation and Corporate Responsibility
The rights and wrongs of gun ownership are a political and social issue for the American people to decide. Where federal laws appear inadequate, state laws have taken up the slack, enacting 600 new guns laws since 2012. In the past five years, 210 gun safety laws have been passed across 45 states. Feeling the heat of public opinion, a number of big retailers have recently changed their policies on the sale of guns and ammunition. Walmart stopped selling assault-styled rifles like the AR-15 back in 2015. Dick’s Sporting Goods have since followed suit. Other retailers have raised the minimum age to buy firearms. However, marketing seems less inclined to change its approach. Although Facebook, Twitter and Google prohibit firearms advertising, it’s easy to find workarounds.
New Rules of Engagement
Marketers everywhere serve two masters. They must strive to do what is honest, fair and responsible for the consumer and wider society. They must also do what is best for the company, shareholders and bank balance. In many industries, marketers must walk an ethical tightrope. When marketing deadly weapons, using fear, paranoia and prejudice does not seem a very responsible approach. What’s more, the fear appeal probably isn’t necessary. In many ways, gun manufacturers and dealers are preaching to the converted. Gun owners and enthusiasts are a willing audience, happy to read about the latest technical innovations, accessories and performance of ammunition. Surely, it is better to create a more positive marketing framework and dialogue. A marketing approach that engages, inspires and informs people about safe, responsible gun ownership rather than preying on their darkest fears.
Creepy and Unethical
Marketing has long used science, psychology and technology to persuade and manipulate consumers to do our bidding and buy our products. However, just because marketing can do something doesn’t necessarily mean it should do it. Marketing says data mining, machine learning and predictive analytics are a good thing because they enable far better, more accurate targeting of consumers. But as the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle reveals, people don’t like having their privacy invaded or being manipulated by marketers. In fact, research by InMoment suggests that three out of four consumers find personalised marketing and advertising “creepy”. What’s more, one out of every four consumers confronted by personalised marketing actually switch brands to a competitor. They are also more likely to share their bad experience of personalisation with others on social media. Unfortunately, for marketing it seems that many of us struggle to differentiate between something technically legal but highly unethical.
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Sources: NBCNews.com, CBSNews.com, AdAge.com, Campaignlive.com, Bustle.com, Pewresearch.org, Ideabankmarketing.com, Governing.com
Images reproduced courtesy of Remington Bushmaster, Dick Clark, Flickr, Mesa Tactical, Flickr, Robert Freiberger, AR-15, Flickr