How gun advertising in America has changed since the 1950s

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There are many reasons why so many Americans seem to be so uniquely enamored with owning so many firearms.

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At least one of the causes must be gun advertising, which has changed over time to reflect the national mood and atmosphere.

Post-war America was a time to buy a car and a house and start the perfect family. Advertisers positioned gun ownership as a way to get your family a little closer to perfect. And advertisers and manufacturers started after young children, according to Der Spiegel.

Indeed, many of those in the US who vehemently insist on their right to own guns were shaped by such ads when they were growing up. And they clearly show the nonchalance with which Americans then and, to a large degree, now approached weapons.

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Take the above advertisement for a Winchester 22 rifle from the 1950s. It could be from a never-before-aired episode of Leave It To Beaver. In it, fathers are implored to pass on the tradition of gun ownership, based on the memory of gun ownership, to their young sons. It calls on fathers to recall their first gun memories: "Remember when you lifted your first Winchester out of the box and put it together with excited, hurrying hands?"

In fact, kids—and being a responsible parent—came up time and time again in 1940s and 1950s advertising for guns.

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This ad for the Iver Johnson revolver even comes with the assurance that your kids won't accidentally shoot themselves: "Absolutely safe" and "Accidental Discharge Impossible."

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And of course, since "sex sells" isn't exactly radical thinking…

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"Give more than a thrill"

Now let's fast forward a few decades. With crime rates up, and politicians beginning to focus on inner city violence, the focus of gun advertising changes. Criminals are lurking everywhere in the 70s and 80s, so people needed to be prepared for the inevitable home invasion or carjacking.

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As women's liberation became more mainstream, suddenly there was a whole new market. A 1995 paper published in Journal of Public Policy & Marketing questioned the ethics of advertising based on fear.

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In 1991, in the journal Constitutional Law, two scholars argued that the Federal Trade Commission should ban gun ads aimed at women because their research found the ads uniquely preyed on fear and women were more likely to come to harm if they owned a gun.

In 1996, the FTC began investigating gun ads over false-advertising claims. Gun control supporters noted that guns are often not good for protection since they are in fact designed to kill. A criminologist at the time said the claims were unwarranted because victims "fend off criminals more than 2 million times annually by threatening them with guns, although weapons are fired only about 20 percent of the time and kill in only one of every 1,000 cases."

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The FTC decided not to regulate gun ads, but the issue keeps cropping up.

It's around this time that the NRA begins to act like the NRA we know and love, warning of a national conspiracy that will form to take away everyone's guns.

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The ad warns of "powerful forces—possibly well-intentioned but ill-informed—working eagerly yet relentlessly to curb and eventually abolish the hunting rights, privileges and freedoms you enjoy today."

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This brings us into the present day. According to Blue Review, a politics and media journal published by Boise State University, the gun advertisements of the 21st century have focused on new technology and anti-government sentiment. Also, that "increasingly sinister themes in gun advertising emerged during the same era that violent first-person shooter and war games came into their heyday." It's easy to sense something ominous in the ads.

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In an email, Occidental College sociology professor Dr. Lisa Wade tells me "gun makers have realized that most Americans aren't going to buy ANY guns, so their best strategy for selling more guns is to convince people that do to buy LOTS of guns." This is done by emphasizing the unique attributes that a gun has—each gun does something different than the next.

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Bushmaster came under some scrutiny for this ad because the "Adam L is just unmanly" portion appeared mere days after the Sandy Hook shoot massacre perpetuated by Adam Lanza.

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Advertising, using psychology, is designed to sell things. What gun ads tells us about ourselves, and our country, is nothing pretty.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: david.matthews@fusion.net

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