Shot to the Heart: the Emotional Marketing of Guns in the United States

As a Marketer for 20 years I can’t help but deconstruct the way products are marketed to consumers, and then analyze how effective the approach is. Sometimes it feels like a disease to be honest, an analytical cancer that I can’t remove and that limits my enjoyment of (bad) and need for (good) many products on the shelves of big box stores across the U.S. I, like many of my fellow Marketers, am Dorothy in Oz, looking behind the curtain to see how the Great and Powerful Wizard that is the U.S. Free-Market Juggernaut operates, deconstructing it, grading it, and deciding what bits to keep using for my own clients, which to jettison, and what the current purchasing psychology of today’s consumers is across industries.

So it’s little surprise that while reflecting on several recent shootings that have occurred in the United States, including Colorado Springs, COSan Bernadino, CASavanna, GA, and Houston, TX, my internal deconstructionist monologue has turned to dissecting the marketing of firearms in the United States. The emotional triggers intertwined in this topic are heated, yet I’m not here to talk about the emotions — I’m here to look at the facts of firearm marketing in the U.S., facts which are ironically led by emotion, aka the Emotional Marketing of guns in the United States.

Emotional Marketing

By definition, Emotional Marketing appeals to our ego. Used by luxury brands for years, this type of marketing sends us the message we’ll be smarter, better looking, more sophisticated, more successful — just about anything that plays on our self esteem—if we just buy this product. Apple is brilliant at emotional marketing, claiming in an ad last summer that 99% of iPhone users love their iPhones. This is not verifiable data, the only ones making this claim are Apple, and that’s the point–the positioning here isn’t about verifiable data, it’s about the relationship of the user to his or her iPhone, which has been elevated from a mere tool to a companion we can’t leave home without.

As a luxury brand, Apple certainly isn’t alone in its reliance on Emotional Marketing to maximize sales, Ralph Lauren, Prada, Tiffany & Co., Mercedes, and more all rely on Emotional Marketing to separate consumers from their money. Why are luxury brands (we won’t even get into the label “luxury brands” in this article, lest we go too far afield) bound to this trend, rather than Rational Marketing (aka marketing using facts or statistics)? Ironically, it’s because of the numbers that luxury brands market to our emotions, specifically the numbers on the price tag. Luxury brands charge more than the average price point for their products, and the proven way to separate consumers from our money for higher-than-average priced goods is to appeal to our egos.

The rationale becomes I’ll pay more for these Prada boots because they make me feel special, rather than my Prada boots cost so much because they’re more durable than other less expensive boots, or my Mercedes is a sign of my financial success, I’ve made it!, rather than my Mercedes is will pay for itself over time in fuel efficiency and lower maintenance fees. If consumers are going to spend substantially more on products for which there are other less-expensive options available that meet the same basic need, then we’d better FEEL something different because we own this product. The psychology of it makes sense, and most of the time we’re having the emotional reaction while reaching for our wallets to close the deal. Emotional Marketing works, and for anyone charged with marketing and selling a luxury brand it makes complete sense.

Rational Marketing

By contrast, non-luxury and even essential goods and services are often promoted using Rational Marketing. Rational Marketing engages a consumer’s logic using data and statistics, entreating the consumer to make a purchase based on a desired outcome, one ideally “proven” by the statistics offered. For example, the consumer who is looking to save money on fuel when driving is entreated to make his purchase based on fuel economy statistics, the message being we’ve already saved consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel costs, and if you buy this car you will save money. While other features such as additional comforts, style, even color may come into play, Rational Marketing leans heavily on promoting products to consumers based on logical, positive outcomes — “proven” by data — that will occur as a result of making this purchase. How the consumer feels is secondary to what the consumer thinks. Both Emotional and Rational Marketing can be successful for brands, and are often combined to accomplish wooing consumers.

Gun Marketing Today

So when I think about the current marketing of guns in the U.S., I can’t help but wonder, about the rationale that drives getting them (legally)into the hands of consumers, how the marketing engine has changed over the years, and what the numbers (purchases, overall number of guns currently owned in the U.S., safety data) reveal. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d come across any marketing or advertising for guns from gun manufacturers, most of the Emotional Marketing I’d seen online was word of mouth marketing (WOMM) passed along by other consumers. So I went to The Google and did a quick search for “gun marketing” and “gun advertising.” Below are some examples of those search results.

In contrast to gun ads and marketing campaigns from the early 1900s that focus on the benefits of the gun itself, or ads from the 1920s and 1930s, which focused mainly on hunting, marketing began to shift in the 1940s, during World War II, to accommodate a war theme, i.e., soldiers use guns to fight for freedom, alongside hunting. In the 1990s marketing saw a palpable shift toward promoting self-defense as a main selling point, with the hopes of expanding the consumer base to include those “at risk” in society, including women, gays, lesbians, and people of color (Source of Historical Gun Advertising ThemesSociological Images).

Flash forward a few decades, and current Emotional Marketing trends target the ego — “Get your man card back” and “Hey fella, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” — with the ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ being our respective, ahem, weapons. Fear and self-defense continue to be main selling points — the world is uncertain, your family is unprotected, there are violent criminals at your door. Searches for marketing campaigns based on Rational Marketing turned up little, which left me wondering about the success and sustainability of this shift in marketing tactics.

We can surmise that increased revenue is a factor in determining if the Emotional Marketing model is working, and in deciding to maintain that model. In 2012 the business research firm Hoovers estimates the gun and ammunition industry generates $6 billion in revenue in the U.S., and thus far in 2015 Smith & Wesson’s net sales have amounted to $551.86 million. According to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), these dollar figures equate to approximately 4.5 million firearms being sold in the U.S. each year.

So, the Emotional Marketing appeal is working. Yet, as a consumer I can’t help but wonder about the Rational Marketing side of things, and why more consumers aren’t looking for facts & figures to aid their gun-buying decisions. What is the data; will owning a gun actually make me safer? By how large a percentage will my sex appeal grow due to gun ownership? Is there a greater than, smaller than, or equal chance that a member of my household will be harmed by a gun vs. an intruder? I honestly don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and okay question two is very tongue in cheek, yet I’d personally like to have verified, accurate data to assist me in making a decision as to whether or not I would purchase a firearm.

Are marketers choosing not to provide this information? We can say yes, possibly, yet we must also recognize that since the 1996 ban on gun violence research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) much of this information has not been made available. A few of the finer points—there was no specific language in legislation banning the collection of such information, but it did ban the reporting of it. The language specifically reads:

“None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

In 2003 the language was expanded to include “in whole or in part,” and in 2012, before the bill was ultimately repealed, the bill expanded the restriction to all Health and Human Services agencies. Okay, this is a lot of politics in an essay about marketing, but it’s an important nuance to understand: as consumers we are unable to include Rational Marketing information in a gun-buying decision because it hasn’t been collected or made available to anyone for 17 years. It will take several years for this information to be collected, aggregated, and reported following to 2012 repeal of the above legislation, so Rational Marketing information will not be available anytime soon.

As a Marketer I know that marketing is manipulation—manipulation of the consumer’s thoughts or feelings to drive allegiance, and purchase of that brand for this product. I understand and accept that, and I hold my marketing brethren to a higher standard of ethics in the hopes that we all use our powers of manipulation for good, even when that good is driving revenue for our clients. As a consumer I want choices. I want brands and the marketers who are manipulating me to recognize that I understand the game, and if I don’t always like or accept the rules they’ve defined I can let them know with my purchases—money really does talk in the language of marketing. I for one would prefer a Rational dialogue to an Emotional one.†