PSAs Killed Cigarettes. Can They Help End Gun Violence?

Gun Rights

If you want a crude sketch of the biggest corporate players in a given year of TV, look no further than the Emmy Award for best commercial. Twenty-five years of winners form an ensemble cast of petty bourgeois preoccupations: Nike, Chrysler, Bud Light. This year’s nominees included a commercial for Meta (the artist formerly known as Facebook), one for Chevy (repping the still-muscular auto spend), two for Apple (a perennial contender), and two for the prevention of school shootings—one of which won the Emmy.

This marks the second time in three years that an ad addressing gun violence has been awarded. That might strike you as dystopian, but it’s actually a positive sign. Commercials, the most expensive and lumbering ad units, tend to reflect ideas that have already matured in the marketplace. If most ads exist to stoke desire for a product or indulgence, public-service advertising is a kind of counterprogramming, going back to government wartime messages exhorting Americans to conserve resources. Public-health campaigns, in particular, face the uphill battle of directing people away from their usual patterns of consumption. Eat less meat, don’t drink and drive, resist the urge to light up: These have always been hard sells, even putting aside their inherent opposition to industry profits.

Gun-violence-prevention ads face a tougher challenge, as evidenced by their name—an ungainly hyphenate designed to elide controversy. The phrase gun control is polarizing and in certain ways moot. Nearly 400 million firearms already circulate through labyrinthine state and local systems. They trade hands with mixed transparency, flowing from established retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods to gun-show booths to secondary sales and a fathomless black market. Advocates and lawmakers can attack the problem of gun violence from dozens of angles, but PSAs, which find success by seeding simple, powerful messages, are often seen as too blunt an instrument to communicate policy proposals.

And whereas most public-health campaigns target the end user, potential shooters are unlikely to be persuaded by such messages. Violence-prevention ads must instead make a more indirect appeal, conscripting community members to help stop shootings before they happen. How? Opinions differ. There is no single or obvious call to action that would ease what amounts to a systemic crisis. All of these factors add up to a heavy burden for a format that wasn’t designed to induce social change. Many grassroots groups know this, but they’re nonetheless emboldened by past campaigns that did alleviate social ills. And some are experimenting with new techniques and more pointed strategies, taking cues from one influential mission in particular: the fight to end smoking.

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Cigarettes posed the ultimate public-health dilemma for much of the 20th century. Not only were cigarettes addictive, affordable, and ubiquitous, but smoking was also a personal choice that, to many, verged on a political right. Tobacco cultivation predates the existence of the United States, and cigarette manufacturers seized on that sense of heritage, gesturing toward a consistent, alluring myth: that smoking was innately American. “Marlboro Man, freedom, patriotism … there’s all this Americana imagery around smoking going back a hundred years,” Tim Nudd, the editor in chief of the Clio Awards (essentially the Golden Globes of advertising), told me.

In its search for new users, Big Tobacco embarked on a campaign of media carpet-bombing, which it funded with a massive marketing war chest. (Mad Men’s most plausible moment might be when an ad-agency executive warns that a tobacco client accounts for 71 percent of his firm’s business.) Thanks to its deep pockets and canny maneuvering, the industry survived decades of research on the adverse effects of smoking, not to mention the death of millions. Plus, smoking was seen as cool—part of an aesthetic that Big Tobacco didn’t invent but diligently copied.

The gun lobby isn’t so different, according to Michael Siegel, a public-health professor at Tufts University. “Thirty years ago, the tobacco industry was like the NRA,” he told me. Cigarette makers had a strong grip on Congress and a history of fending off critics with the same kind of hollow, nationalist copy heard in its commercials. Decreasing Americans’ dependence on cigarettes demanded a widespread attitude adjustment that lawmaking alone couldn’t deliver—a belief that smoking wasn’t just dangerous but societally toxic.

The NRA and its political allies have maintained a similar legislative impasse, though one aided by gun ownership’s status as a constitutionally protected right, not just a culturally imagined one. Decades of NRA doctrine have also helped redraw social lines, gerrymandering new boundaries between people whose core values might not otherwise be in conflict. To break new ground, gun-violence-prevention advocates want to reframe the story of guns in America by lifting a page from the anti-smoking playbook.

In 1998, the four largest cigarette manufacturers signed the Master Settlement Agreement, which was like Big Tobacco’s Treaty of Versailles. It required them to amend their marketing practices and make annual payments to the states to compensate for the medical costs incurred by smoking-related illnesses. Those concessions hobbled profitability—up to a point. But tobacco’s steep cultural decline can be attributed, in part, to a specific provision that allocated millions of dollars to a national PSA campaign aimed at dissuading new smokers. “The tobacco industry was so successful in getting these myths out there, these misconceptions, that the way we defeated them was by using advertising to counter their messages,” Siegel said. In other words, anti-smoking groups outmarketed Big Tobacco with its own money.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit that emerged from the settlement, directed this campaign. Its ads blended stunts, activism, and media to provocative effect, such as when it dumped 1,200 body bags on the doorstep of the tobacco company Philip Morris, or compared the contents of cigarettes to dog poop. These visceral PSAs helped bend public perception after decades of ineffectual reports from the Surgeon General’s office, and they coincided with statewide adoptions of stringent indoor smoking bans. (Truth’s strategy evolved from a pilot program launched in Florida in 1998; four years later, Floridians overwhelmingly voted for a constitutional amendment to prohibit smoking in all enclosed indoor workplaces, end-running policy makers who had failed to get it done in the legislature.)

Crucially, Truth adhered to a strict perspective: Smokers weren’t the problem; cigarette makers were. The same lesson can be applied to the current slate of gun-violence-prevention PSAs. Nicole Hockley, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise after losing her son Dylan in the 2012 massacre, described the need to create a “safe space” for gun owners to engage in conversation. “The moment you mention guns, people assume a side,” she told me. “You’re either for or against. And that gives a responsible gun owner no place to move.”

Historically, piecemeal public-service ads have trod cautiously so as not to alienate a core constituency—gun owners themselves, some 30 percent of Americans. They’ve employed inconsistent strategies, sometimes urging gun owners to “lock it up,” other times decrying feeble government regulation. Mixed messages threaten to undercut the impact of these PSAs, and soft targets can make for mealymouthed calls to action. Thoughtful, measured arguments aren’t always the right fit for this medium, which usually requires a villain, like a Big Tobacco. “For us, that starts and stops with the NRA,” Sam Shepherd, the global executive creative director of Leo Burnett, told me.

Shepherd and his team produced the first of this year’s Emmy-nominated PSAs in partnership with Change the Ref, a nonprofit founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, who lost their son, Joaquin, in the Parkland shooting. Together they pulled a stunt straight out of the Truth campaign, inviting former NRA President David Keene to deliver an address to 3,044 empty chairs. Keene thought he was rehearsing the commencement speech he would give that week at a Las Vegas high school; in reality, each chair represented a would-be graduate of the nationwide class of 2021 who had died from gun violence.

Did it work? The big question of these ads’ effectiveness, and how to measure it, remains. Though nonprofits and their agency partners have adopted tactics from the anti-smoking era, they still haven’t settled on an ironclad strategy. Even an emotionally powerful commercial like “The Lost Class” has its flaws. As the public face of firearms, the NRA makes for a compelling enemy, but those who would delight in seeing a man like Keene humiliated probably don’t need a PSA to turn them against the group. And the commercial ends by inviting people to sign a petition for universal background checks—the same type of legislation, it reminds us, that Keene and others have raised millions to undermine. If “The Lost Class” is meant to catalyze some new behavior among ordinary viewers, it’s unclear how.

Shepherd explained that the audience for “The Lost Class” and the next wave of gun-violence-prevention PSAs isn’t just individual citizens but also companies, suggesting that their participation would rescue the issue from years of partisan wheel-spinning. “Getting a major brand involved will just help break it out of the two camps, the bubbles,” he said. Viewed through that lens, it’s perhaps no coincidence that grassroots groups have converged on the issue of gun violence in schools. Focusing on schools, as opposed to other public spaces, could make for an easier sell to corporations that might pantomime progressive values, but generally avoid substantive politics. Students, after all, are political innocents—they live and die at the mercy of a system they didn’t vote for. More cynically, they represent future consumers. The hope of some activists is that companies could embrace that responsibility if the right executives see the right PSAs.

Running commercials to win over Big Business has a wag-the-dog quality, but in the absence of federal support, these groups must rely on the benevolence of the private sector. Money is everything in advertising. Messaging, provocation, and creative ingenuity are simply ways to stretch a given budget. As scrappy and rebellious as anti-smoking PSAs in the early aughts might’ve seemed, they were largely funded and coordinated at the federal level. The CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health shared research with state health departments and furnished them with ready-made ads, free airtime, and technical assistance.

Siegel, who worked there at the time, can’t fathom why a federal office for gun-violence prevention doesn’t exist. “It’s insane,” he said. “We have an agency to deal with diabetes. We have an agency to deal with hypertension. We have an agency to deal with tobacco, alcohol, injuries … for God’s sake, we have a tuberculosis office at CDC.” In 2019, 526 Americans died of TB. Nearly 40,000 died from gunfire. That same year, after a 25-year hiatus, Congress appropriated $25 million for firearm-injury-prevention research, split between the CDC and National Institutes of Health. The money is a promising start, but it falls well short of anti-smoking budgets.

Truth Initiative, which continues to fight against tobacco’s legacy—lending muscle to campaigns against things like vaping and cigarettes in PG-13 movies—had more than $130 million in cash on hand last year. Neither Change the Ref nor Sandy Hook Promise have anywhere near that amount. Nor do they benefit from the extensive tracking and data collection that attend federal programs. “Measurement of effectiveness is incredibly difficult with gun-violence prevention,” Nudd told me.

Whom should advocates try to reach, and what should they get them to do? Most commercial advertising begins with a brief outlining these exact parameters, based on years or even decades of market research. By comparison, gun-violence-prevention organizers operate in the dark. “The more data that we have, the more pointed we can be with solutions,” Hockley said. She noted that 80 percent of school shooters signal their intent, or tell at least one person, but such stats are not widely taught—so they became the foundation of a grassroots movement.

Sandy Hook Promise is behind this year’s Emmy-winning commercial “Teenage Dream,” which features a devastating rendition of the Katy Perry song by survivors of school shootings. They sing it hesitantly, with a sparse piano accompaniment, giving the adolescent lyrics a haunting subtext. After a short title appears—“The teenage dream is not what it used to be”—we revisit each survivor to learn the nightmarish details of their experience. The video concludes with the nonprofit’s long-running message to “know the signs.” “That is a very actionable PSA,” Nudd said. “That can and does, I think, change people’s behavior.” A CDC-led campaign could validate its strategy, or unearth new tactics altogether. But the Biden administration would first have to acknowledge our national epidemic. For advocates like Hockley and the Olivers, that means appointing a gun czar, which the president has yet to do.

The path forward hinges on a semantic distinction: whether firearm injuries are a matter of public health, not just public policy. I asked Siegel why gun violence—which has little in common with cancer, HIV, and other diseases—should be considered a health concern. “What makes something a public-health crisis is the public’s decision that it’s not acceptable,” he said. In 2020, gunshots overtook car crashes to become the leading cause of death among Americans ages 19 and under. Sixty-one mass shootings happened last month alone. We don’t need PSAs to tell us that we’re sick. But even the mildest reminds us there are better ways to live.

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