Image for Ad Campaigns Seek to Prevent Gun Violence

Target Audience Is the ‘Movable Middle’ – Concerned Gun Owners

Groups trying to prevent gun violence have appealed to the advertising industry to assist on campaigns focused on saving lives rather than gun regulation. Ads would be aimed at the “movable middle” – people who own guns but are alarmed by rising gun violence.

The mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine involved a former military veteran facing mental health issues who used an assault-style rifle to kill 18 people and injure 13 others at a bowling alley and a restaurant. There were four mass shootings on Halloween weekend, killing six and injuring 40 in Texarkana, Indianapolis, Tampa and Chicago.

Before this weekend, there had been 565 mass shootings in the United States in 2023. As of October 26, the Gun Archive reported 35,275 people died as a result of gun violence, an average of 118 deaths per day. By way of comparison, over the last three years there has been a daily average of 114 fatal car crashes, a third of which are linked to intoxicated drivers.

The appeal to address gun violence comes against a backdrop of advertisers facing consumer backlash and boycotts resulting from taking stands on social issues that right-wing critics call woke policies. Ad agencies are less constrained by right-wing blowback.

The Story of Survival
Ad agencies already have worked with groups such as The Brady Center and Sandy Hook Promise. BCW America collaborated with the Brady Center on an ad called The Story of Survival that features Navy veteran Dan Kirchner reading what sounds like a first-hand account of a war zone. The ad ends when he learns the letter was written by Josh, a 6-year-old wounded in a mass shooting at his day camp. The ad generated 346 million impressions.

Kirchner says, “I hadn’t given the assault weapons ban much thought before I participated in this campaign. Reading Josh’s experience, it really could have been told by any of my fellow combat veterans and it struck a chord with me.”

Diego Bertagni, executive creative director for BCW, says, “The ad’s success resulted from in-depth of testing of Brady’s target audiences – veterans, gun owners and the ‘movable middle’ – people who want to end gun violence but favor the right to bear arms.”

The testing for The Story of Survival led to important insights on how to broaden the conversation to reach new audiences. For instance, Brady learned that focusing its message on saving lives, rather than Second Amendment rights, are more effective in reaching Americans on both sides of the aisle.

Ads to Inform Students and Teachers
Nicole Hockley, founder of Sandy Hook Promise, said ad agencies can assist the group’s efforts to bring engaging educational programs to schools that help students, staff and parents identify warning signs of a potential attack.

Susan Lavington, COO at the Brady Center, cited the ad industry’s influence that changed public opinion about same-sex marriage. “We need to shift hearts and minds before we’re going to start to see the political side of the equation shift,” she said.

“We believe we can do that exact same thing with gun violence prevention, finding gun owners and making them a part of the conversation,” Lavington continued. “Bring in new messengers, more conservative messengers and people who have experience with guns who are credible, but who support where we’re trying to go.  We’re not focused on the political side. We’re focused on creating social impact and change.”

David Lubar, chief creative officer of BBDO Worldwide, the ad agency of record for Sandy Hook Promise, said, “None of the pieces we’ve ever done take a stand on legislation. Everybody has to be included in this. If you’re pro-gun, you’re like, ‘Okay this ad is all about knowing the signs of mental health. It’s not attacking me.’ This has to be a bipartisan effort to be effective.”

Just Joking, one of the videos created by BBDO Worldwide, features several stand-up comics delivering lines that at first seem like jokes about school shootings but soon become apparent are actual lines from school shooters. “The campaign,” Lubar explained, “was designed to make people uncomfortable and highlight the importance of taking threats that may initially seem like jokes seriously.”

“We need to shift hearts and minds before we’re going to see the political side of the equation shift.”

Brady Center
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence was founded after Jim Brady was seriously injured in a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan. Brady’s lasting injuries prevented from returning to his post as Reagan’s press secretary, but and his wife Sarah Brady joined the effort to pass legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales. Introduced in 1988, it required seven years and three presidencies before what became known as the Brady Bill was signed into law.

Brady died in 2014 at age 73. The cause of death was ruled homicide from the shooting 33 years earlier. Sarah Brady died one year later. Both had been honored for their work on gun safety.

Sandy Hook Promise
Sandy Hook Promise is a nonprofit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Based in Newtown, Connecticut, the group seeks to empower young people to recognize the signs of potential gun violence and advocate meaningful actions in schools, homes and communities to prevent gun violence and save lives.

The organization grew out of a community meeting the same night as the shooting that killed 20 children and six adults, one of whom was the school psychologist. While this gathering served as a connection to cry, commiserate and support each other, Lee Shull, a computer consultant whose twins survived the shooting, said, “We need to do something.’’ The initial dozen people involved quickly grew to around 100. While some community members decided to focus on legislative changes, the group that became Sandy Hook Promise focuses on keep children in school safe and preventing gun violence.