Last week, a mass shooting took place at a high school graduation just a few blocks from where I live in Richmond, Va. A 19-year old opened fire in a public park, killing a graduate and his stepfather and injuring multiple people, including a nine-year old girl.
“The mass shooting in Richmond is the 279th mass shooting in America this year, and it’s only June 6,” stated American professor and political commentator Robert Reich in a tweet. “Guns have killed more than 18,000 Americans this year. It’s long past time for gun reform.”
Richmond joins the ongoing list of mass shootings that have taken place in the U.S. over the last century—a disturbing trend that has come to define our nation. British poet Brian Bilston sums it up best in his poem that pairs countries with symbols. While England is a “cup of tea” and France a “wheel of ripened brie,” America is a Gun.
It’s difficult to hear the news of yet another mass shooting. It hits even harder because it’s my hometown.
Like many, I’m sad, angry, bewildered and frustrated. More than anything, I’m fed up with the NRA’s tired narrative of gun owners’ rights, conservatives defending their interpretation of a “reinvented” Second Amendment, and the delusion that more guns make us safer.
NPR reports that 60 percent of Americans (including four in 10 who own firearms) believe curbing gun violence is more important than gun rights. A recent Gallup poll shows that dissatisfaction with U.S. gun laws has risen to an all-time high at 63 percent.
While people are divided on how to solve the issue, according to Scientific American, the answer is abundantly clear: Gun control saves lives.
Consider these facts:
Only in America do we have more guns than people. Only in America are children and teens more likely to die by guns than anything else. Only in America has gun violence been declared a public health crisis and the leading cause of premature death.
Our country touts a brand promise of freedom, but are we truly free when we live in a world where people are regularly shot and killed at schools, restaurants, concerts, places of worship and graduations?
In 1994, Congress enacted a federal ban on assault weapons, which reduced the number of people killed in mass shootings.The ban expired after 10 years and was not renewed. In the decade following its repeal, over 300 people were shot and killed in 34 mass shootings, representing a 239 percent increase in fatalities.
Had the ban stayed in place, countless lives could’ve been saved. Instead, the U.S. is now on track to set the record in 2023 for mass killings, averaging more than one mass killing per week.
Other countries have also proven the efficacy of sensible gun laws.
An article in The New Yorker called on Americans to look around the world at countries like Australia, Britain and Canada that have enacted reforms to turn mass shootings into rare incidents, rather than everyday occurrences.
In short, gun control works.
It’s exasperating that this evidence exists and yet our government takes no substantial action. The majority of Americans don’t want thoughts and prayers, they want policy and action.
Yes, we can march, speak out and vote. But for real, meaningful change to happen, our voices cannot be relegated to an echo chamber. A demand for gun control must exist and be amplified on larger platforms, injected into mainstream culture and normalized within our society.
And therein lies an incredible opportunity for brands.
In advertising, we talk a lot about bold brands. Brands that take risks stand out. We remember them. Talk about them. More often than not, we buy from them.
“Marketing is about values,” legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once stated. “It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us.”
His point is that the most successful, beloved brands don’t just sell a product or a service, they sell a belief system.
Think about the billion-dollar powerhouse brands ingrained in our culture and what they represent.
Nike believes that anyone with a body can be an athlete. Coke believes that simple moments bring the greatest pleasure. Disney believes in the universal magic of entertainment to delight people of all ages.
These brands are popular not only because of what they provide, but because of what they stand for.
Over time, each has built their reputation, intentionally and strategically, on principles that convey their purpose and to which people can relate and aspire.
By consistently expressing what they believe—visually, verbally, experientially and more—these brands tap into our emotional psyche on a deep, visceral level. But the real tipping point occurs when brands leverage their values to take a stand on social issues.
Take Nike for example. The world’s largest athletic apparel company has a long history of advocating for social change in its advertising. When it launched an ad campaign featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the brand immediately faced boycott threats. Kaepernick sparked controversy in 2016 by kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality against Black communities.
Yet after the campaign’s debut, Nike’s sales shot up over 30 percent, translating into $6 billion in earnings. Undeterred, Nike continues to bring social issues like Black Lives Matter, gender equality and people with disabilities to the forefront of national conversation.
Taking a stand also has the potential to attract new audiences.
In a push to reach younger, more diverse consumers, Anheuser-Busch partnered with transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, who unveiled a promotional video for Bud Light during March Madness. The video received a hate-filled backlash and boycott from anti-LGBTQ+ and transphobic conservatives, which caused the company’s stock to initially drop.
However, Bud Light remains America’s top-selling beer and Anheuser-Busch states it will continue to support and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. That’s because inclusivity isn’t just the right thing to do, executives are realizing it can also be more profitable.
Brands willing to evolve and embrace the viewpoints of today’s America stay relevant and in turn, increase their chances of survival.
Companies are learning that aligning with social causes allows them to not only build stronger customer connections, but also a better brand.
While some critics call corporate activism performative, others consider it more than a marketing gimmick and instead, a sincere way for businesses to engage with public policy making.
Certainly, there are pros and cons of Corporate America publicly weighing in on laws (though they privately spend millions lobbying for them in the halls of Congress). But as redistricting and partisan gerrymandering continue to threaten our democracy, many feel our government is becoming less and less representative of the majority.
If elected officials keep ignoring what’s important to most Americans, perhaps brands can make them listen.
Software company Sprout Social recently conducted a compelling study that determined that brands taking a stand is the new normal. In fact, a whopping 70 percent of Americans believe brands should take a stand on social and political issues.
Currently, Millennials represent the largest group of consumers, with Generation Z on the rise. For these specific demographics, social issues are top of mind and they make a point to seek out brands that reflect their values and beliefs.
Indeed, younger generations are demanding that brands take a stand on everything from climate change and mental health to equal rights and yes, gun laws. As their buying power increases, businesses must adapt their marketing to maintain relevance—and revenue.
I’ve spoken out before on my belief that creativity, when used as a force for good, can fundamentally change the world. Brands that are willing to promote social causes will no doubt earn the loyalty—and purchase power—of these growing audiences. I’d even go so far to say that brands must do it to avoid extinction.
Ben & Jerry’s is one of the rare brands that is synonymous with activism.
Believing that ice cream can change the world, the company is known for its custom flavors on a mission to raise awareness of important issues like climate change, racial justice, voting rights and more.
Other brands could take a cue from Ben & Jerry’s all-in approach.
In 2013, Starbucks posted a respectful request asking customers to refrain from bringing guns into its stores. In response, thousands of gun owners showed up on national Starbucks Appreciation Day flaunting their guns in retaliation. Since then, the company has remained largely silent on the issue.
Instead of ignoring our country’s continued gun violence, what if Starbucks made a conscientious decision to speak out in favor of gun legislation?
The world’s largest coffeehouse chain collaborates with many artists to develop everything from coffee cup designs to neighborhood murals. Starbucks could sponsor a series of artworks in support of gun control as part of their commitment to promoting safe and equitable communities. The series could serve as a reinterpretation of the “Brew not Bullets” initiative first proposed by the National Gun Victims Action Council.
Several years ago, Dick’s Sporting Goods followed its conscience on guns and it paid off. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the sporting goods company stopped selling semi-automatic weapons and restricted gun sales. Walmart, L.L. Bean and Kroger followed suit by raising the age to purchase a gun to 21.
What if Dick’s doubled down on its preliminary action by launching an ad campaign specifically advocating for gun control?
The brand could highlight all the different sporting activities people can do without guns, or show an ideal world where sensible gun laws allow people to enjoy being outside without fear of being shot.
Imagine if fashion retailer Old Navy leveraged its positive, feel-good brand to send out a back-to-school message pledging support for gun control to keep children safe. That way kids and teens could spend less time in active shooter drills and more time getting their fash’on.
The brand could honor its most loyal customer demographic (women with children) by donating a portion of their profits to Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement working to help pass stronger gun laws. After all, what mother—or anyone for that matter—doesn’t want to ensure kids are safe from gun violence?
The possibilities for brands are endless.
Whether a company is in the business of selling shoes, jeans, or recreational equipment—it doesn’t matter. Gun violence is a part of daily life in America and because of that, any and all brands have an opportunity to speak out on it.
As consumers, we also have a responsibility to support American businesses that are taking a stand on gun violence and encourage greater, more visible initiatives to create the impact needed to instigate real, meaningful change.
At a time when our country should be investing in education, infrastructure, jobs and the environment, the economic cost of gun violence costs us $557 billion annually. That’s a combined average of nearly $35 million each day that our federal, state and local governments are spending.
Enough. Americans are desperate for change and desperate for the killing of innocent people to stop.
Are any brands out there courageous enough to take a public stand against the NRA and speak out in favor of legitimate gun control? Are any ad agencies willing to encourage them to do so?