The way in which Americans have purchased firearms, and how they’re advertised, has changed greatly over the years. A recent study from Oregon State University sheds light on a new group helping target consumers: gun influencers. Aimee Huff and Michelle Barnhart are both associate professors at OSU’s College of Business. They both join us to discuss how gun culture has changed over the years and the role these influencers are playing.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with a conversation about America’s evolving gun culture, the reasons people buy guns, and the ways gun sellers market them. Aimee Huff and Michelle Barnhart are both associate professors of marketing in Oregon State University’s College of Business. They’ve spent years studying these issues and they say that there have been some major shifts over the last few decades. Their latest research focuses on a new group helping to target potential gun buyers: social media influencers. Michelle Barnhart and Aimee Huff, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Michelle Barnhart: Thanks, Dave. We’re happy to be here.
Aimee Huff: Happy to be here, Dave.
Miller: So Michelle, first. Researchers have identified three overlapping but I guess distinct subcultures of American gun owners. What’s the first one chronologically?
Barnhart: So the first one that was identified is really a recreational subculture of gun owners. And with that subculture, their focus is on recreational activities like hunting or target shooting. And they tend to be pretty safety-focused in terms of thinking about what gun owners need to know about guns.
Miller: Aimee, what about the second?
Huff: So the second emerged probably in the 80s and 90s. And we certainly see it as a very distinct and prominent subculture now and that is related to self protection or armed self-defense. And that typically involves keeping and sometimes carrying a handgun for the purpose of protecting oneself and others from threats. In our research, we have noted that handgun owners do think about gun safety. They rehearse routines in their heads. They practice. And they think about the different risks that come with handgun ownership, how to mitigate those risks, and it’s just generally a very different way of thinking about and using guns compared to the recreational subculture.
Miller: And potentially there’s also a different kind of gun that would be the focus. In this case, handguns say, as opposed to a hunting rifle?
Huff: Yes, that’s right. And handguns, of course, can be concealed. And many people who practice armed self-defense or armed protection do carry concealed handguns on their person, in their purse, in a holster and so on.
Miller: Michelle, what about the third subculture?
Barnhart: The third was identified much more recently, within the last 10 years or so. And it is a subculture that’s focused on endorsing a constitutional right to bear arms and really valorizing individual gun ownership. So we refer to this as the “2A” or “Second Amendment " gun subculture. So it’s much more focused on a belief system as opposed to activities like hunting or like carrying a gun for self-defense.
Miller: Are there guns, particular models or styles that are more associated with this political or almost philosophical subculture?
Barnhart: Yes, Dave. Based on what we’ve seen, the AR-15, or what some groups would call assault-style rifles and other groups would call modern sporting rifles, have become the iconic gun of the Second Amendment subculture. So definitely a symbolic gun in relation to that set of beliefs.
Miller: How does marketing connect to these three different subcultures? I mean, I guess one thing I’m wondering is, how much marketing these days is directly [or] seemingly intended to entice people who are interested in hunting, in particular, as opposed to self-defense or a particular understanding of the Second Amendment ?
Barnhart: We’ve actually done some research on advertising over the last 20 years, in a popular magazine that you can buy on the shelf in the grocery store, so aimed at the general public. And there are distinct trends that you can see over time. Where the number of advertisements for hunting rifles and shotguns, which would be used for the recreational subculture, have gone down, which is consistent with the interest level of the general public in those activities which has also gone down. Meanwhile, handguns which would be concealable and used generally for self-defense, ads for those are much more prevalent now than ads for shotguns and rifles. And then there has been a rise also in the number of ads for assault-style rifles or modern sporting rifles, but not as much as handguns. Still, handgun ads are the most prevalent.
Miller: Aimee, how does the political or philosophical underpinnings of that third subculture make its way into advertising messages?
Huff: That’s a great question, Dave. So let me back up here and just point out something that’s sort of unusual about gun advertising in the US. Because guns can be construed as threatening and violent or expressly emblematic of a political ideology, like the 2A ideology or the Second Amendment ideology that Michelle mentioned, most mainstream media companies have voluntarily enacted policies within the last decade to restrict gun advertising.
So what this means is that the main sort of conventional media channels for advertising of other consumer products are not available to gun manufacturers. For example, Comcast and Time Warner have initiated bans on firearms in 2013. Other major television broadcasters like ESPN and Fox and CBS do not accept advertisements for firearms or ammunition. And major digital and social media platforms like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, prohibit ads for firearms and ammunition.
So what that means for gun manufacturers is they really have to, in some ways, get creative with their advertising. And in other ways, it means they need to rely on more traditional channels like print advertisements. So we do see that, print advertisements and gun shows. So going to a trade show or consumer show, if you will, remain the dominant channels for gun manufacturers to display their advertisements and to promote their products.
Miller: I want to make sure that I understand this because it seems like one of the key words you use there is “voluntarily.” So this is different from say cigarette advertising, which doesn’t happen on broadcast television. You’re saying there’s no reason, under federal law, that guns can’t be advertised. But these companies are making a decision that they will not allow it themselves?
Huff: That’s right. Yes, it is surprising because it does feel like to most people that we talk to, [that] guns should be subject to the same type of regulation as cigarettes as you noted or as recreational cannabis. But they’re not. We see that mainstream media companies have voluntarily enacted those policies.
Miller: So to get to the messaging itself, I understand why you started with where these messages can even be seen because the places where they can be seen probably does connect with the messaging itself. But how might a mainstream gun manufacturer sell their weapons these days with a nod towards the Second Amendment ?
Barnhart: So this is Michelle. I’ll jump in here. In the research that I mentioned before, one of the ads that we’ve seen is for an AR-15 style weapon, which is the emblematic one of the Second Amendment ideology. And the tagline was, “Defend your legacy.” So you can see that it kind of gives a nod to the Second Amendment as an important part of American heritage. And it also leaves open the idea that this could be used for self-defense, in the sense of defending perhaps your family as “your legacy.” So you see more gentle nods to that in the advertising coming from the manufacturers. You see much more deliberate politicization of the messaging among influencers on social media who are not directly working for the manufacturers, but are still promoting these types of messages.
Miller: Maybe this is an impossible question to definitively answer when we’re talking about marketing in any context. But I’m wondering about cause and effect. I’m wondering if you can say if the marketing or advertising of guns has changed the way that gun owners or prospective gun owners think about firearms, or is it just a sign of the market capitalizing, responding to existing shifts?
Huff: That’s a great question. And you did identify the two functions that advertising has in society. So advertising is sort of a mirror or a reflection of social values, of things that people want to do and feel and experience. And advertising directs or gently influences the ways that people think and feel about products. I think when we’re talking about gun advertising, the ads that we see from gun manufacturers, and again, those gun manufacturers predominantly have to rely on print media in magazines and in going to trade shows and gun shows and so on to display their products. Those channels for advertising and promoting the products tend to be much less political and less overtly ideological in the messaging and the advertising framing.
But running alongside all of this is something that Michelle and I have just studied recently. And that is the existence of social media influencers or, in this case, “gunfluencers” who, when we’re talking about guns, occupy this really powerful space to shape the way that consumers think about guns, to reflect the social values that we ascribe to guns and gun culture. And so these individuals, these gunfluencers, who are professional independent contracted content creators that work on social media platforms, have this really outsized role in promoting guns and in stitching together specific types of guns, like a modern sporting rifle, with a very specific ideology the Second Amendment or 2A ideology.
Miller: How do you measure the influence of these influencers?
Huff: Well, one thing we can look at is the size of their following. So we generally think about macro influencers as independent influencers working on these social media platforms who have a following of more than 100,000 people. And then there are a multitude of engagement metrics that you could look at to determine the different ways or different effects that those influencers have. You can look at the number of times their content is liked, shared, followed, commented on, the amount of discussion on their posts and so on.
It’s really hard to tease apart or to specifically identify the impact that those influencers have had on gun sales. But we do know that about 1-in-20 Americans now own an assault-style rifle. And about 1-in-5 gun owners own an assault-style rifle. We know that manufacturing of this style of rifle has increased dramatically since the end of the assault weapons ban, the federal ban that ended in 2004.
So right around then, assault-style rifles accounted for about 2% of all guns manufactured in the U.S. And in 2020, that same style of gun accounted for about 25% of guns manufactured in the U.S. So we can see this dramatic shift in consumer interest in this style of guns that, again, are expressly emblematic of the Second Amendment ideology. We know that more of them are being manufactured. They are subject to more media attention, investigative reporting, research and so on.
Miller: I want to turn to gender because it’s really fascinating. I’m curious, Michelle first, what themes you see in either advertising or among gunfluencers, as you call them, in terms of advertising, say that’s directed specifically at men?
Barnhart: That’s interesting. So you definitely see some masculine themes in the advertising that’s directed towards men. So messages that would indicate that owning a gun or having a gun is something that helps to kind of prove that you are a man.
Miller: I saw one ad that states, “Consider your man card reissued.”
Barnhart: Yes, that’s a pretty notorious ad now, that came up after the Newtown [Sandy Hook] shooting. So yeah, we do see some masculine themes. We see a lot of imagery and ads directed towards men that are intended to be aspirational, in the sense that it shows professionals using those types of weapons. So [there’s] a lot of military imagery or law enforcement imagery which the intent, we believe, is to inspire men who are not in those professions to buy those types of guns, to feel like they have a kinship with that professional type of use.
Miller: And be like a macho man, be like a warrior, be like a police officer or an infantryman?
Barnhart: Exactly. Yeah. And it’s interesting because the other thing that you see heralded about these types of guns, among the communities who really like them, is their customizability and their kind of ease of use. And so almost the message is you can use the gun that the professionals use and you don’t have to be a professional. They’re easy enough to use that you don’t have to have all of the training and stuff that you would have if you went through a military program.
Miller: What about marketing that is explicitly directed towards women?
Huff: So we actually have a study that we’re just wrapping up right now that explicitly looks at how armed women are depicted in ads and the ways that advertising can try to appeal to women gun owners. And what we’ve found is that just in the last, probably five years, there’s been a shift from the ads conveying ideas of women’s empowerment and these emotional benefits for women who might wanna carry a gun or keep a handgun for self-defense. These ads for women are predominantly handgun ads.
And we’ve seen the shift away from an emotional kind of benefit to women to a much more practical benefit, a much more serious pragmatic benefit to owning a handgun. We see the ads depicting women training at gun ranges, wearing eye and ear protection. The ads often now depict women not smiling. They’re really focused and very serious. And what we think these ads are doing is really communicating to prospective and current women gun owners that they can be very capable proficient gun owners and able to use guns effectively and safely in a defensive situation.
Miller: Michelle Barnhart and Aimee Huff, thanks very much.
Huff: Thank you, Dave.
Barnhart: Thanks, Dave.
Miller: Aimee Huff and Michelle Barnhart are associate professors of marketing at Oregon State University’s College of Business.
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