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Mass Shootings in the Age of Direct Marketing
For most of my professional life, I led companies and brands in direct marketing—the art and science of communicating the benefits of products directly to consumers. Most recently, I was the CEO of proactiv, the historical champion of the direct marketing of acne products.
Over the years, I employed a myriad of direct marketing “techniques,” some of which I’m not particularly proud of—using trial offers, giveaways, and extending credit. These tactics, combined with an impressive stable of celebrity endorsers, resulted in a strong ability for the proactiv brand to lure in consumers—especially impressionable teens.
These youth marketing techniques are nothing new. Companies have long understood the buying power of teens, both in their ability to influence their family’s spending habits and define trends that are often adopted by other age groups. For many years, the ethics of such strategies went largely unchecked. You surely remember the Joe Camel ad campaign, which used a cartoon character to market Camel cigarettes. “Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market,” read a 1973 R.J. Reynolds document titled “Some Thoughts about New Brands of Cigarettes for the Youth Market.” It took until 1997 for the government to step in, when the Federal Trade Commission charged R.J. Reynolds with violating federal law.
proactiv’s advertising, too, was well-regulated. The FDA provided guidelines about what medical claims we could make, while the FTC governed what marketing offers and promises we could offer. There are plenty of companies regulated in similar manners—in fact, virtually every advertisement you see is subjected to oversight in one way or another.
But there’s one deadly product on the market that’s escaped much regulation: firearms.
“The FTC has effectively given the gun industry a free pass,” reads an April, 2022 petition submitted to the FTC by a group of gun control advocates. The group, which included Brady, the Giffords Law Center, March for Our Lives, and the Firearms Accountability Counsel Taskforce, allege that gun manufacturers use deceptive advertising practices to sell their products.
The most disturbing trend growing among gun manufacturers is embracing the art and science of direct marketing to teens. Want to own the hardware that mercenary John Wick uses on the big screen? Big Daddy Unlimited has you covered with a four-gun set. Worried about the zombie apocalypse? Though now discontinued, bullet maker Hornady sold a line of green, polymer-tipped bullets called Z-Max that were designed to kill zombies. “Be prepared for Zombiegeddon,” the ad copy on the company’s website read. “Just in case…Get loaded with Z-MAX bullets and prepare to ‘Mist’-ify Zombie varmints!”
Likewise, gun companies are increasingly using social media to sell their products, a space often dominated by younger consumers. According to a 2020 Drew University study, 85 percent of domestic firearm manufacturers host their own YouTube channels, and many of them leverage social media influencers to sell their products through paid sponsorships. Porn star-turned competitive shooter Alaina Hicks (aka Bonnie Rotten), for example, shares non-stop content featuring her brandishing various firearms in skimpy outfits.
One of the most serious offenders is Daniel Defense, a Georgia-based gun manufacturer responsible for making the AR-15 used in last month’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 children and two teachers dead and more than a dozen wounded. According to The New York Times, some of the company’s ads “invoke popular video games like ‘Call of Duty’ and feature ‘Star Wars’ characters and Santa Claus”—characters that would likely appeal to teenagers. “Daniel Defense is basically the poster child of this egregious, aggressive marketing,” former gun executive Ryan Busse told the Times.
Advocates for such marketing campaigns argue they’re not doing anything wrong. After all, it’s legal for 18-year-olds to purchase rifles in all but six states.In fact, according to the National Institute of Justice, 77 percent of firearms used in mass shootings since 1966 were obtained legally—including Salvador Ramos, the Uvalde shooter who legally purchased two AR-15 rifles just days after he turned 18.
Why does it matter that teens can legally get their hands on these deadly weapons? The New York Times reported that since 2018, six of the country’s nine deadliest mass shootings were by people 21 or younger. Only two of the 30 deadliest mass shootings recorded from 1949 to 2017 involved gunman under 21: Columbine High School in 1999, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. “They fit in a critical age range—roughly 15 to 25—that law enforcement officials, researchers, and policy experts consider a hazardous crossroads for young men, a period when they are in the throes of developmental changes and social pressures that can turn them toward violence in general, and, in the rarest cases, mass shootings,” the Times article states.
It’s clear that lawmakers understand 18 isn’t the threshold of maturity we once thought it to be. In the last 50 years, we’ve moved several age limits upward, including the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, and handguns. Last week, Democrats in the House passed the Protecting Our Kids Act, which would raise the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle to 21, but most experts say it has little chance of passing in the deadlocked Senate.
While I agree the odds of passing such a law in our current environment is unlikely—thanks to a tendency for Republicans to cloak themselves within the Second Amendment when any gun-related legislation is introduced—it seems absurd that we are not willing to adopt common-sense regulation, especially regarding teens’ ability to purchase firearms. Are we going to be held hostage by the gun lobby and Senate Republicans? Inaction to protect our nation’s children is nothing but a shameful tragedy. The government must heed the calls to crack down on aggressive gun advertising. History has demonstrated that marketing deadly products to teens is dangerous, and this current scenario is certainly no different.
If legislators can get on board with regulating pimple medication, it is my hope they’d be willing to take action against the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our nation.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the minimum purchase age for long guns in Florida, Washington, Vermont, California, Illinois, and Hawaii is 21.