Two children sit on the floor in a classroom, their legs folded “criss-cross apple sauce,” as if for story time. They face the camera with slightly glazed expressions, one holding a book and the other an assault rifle. “One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them,” read the ad’s words. “Guess which one.” Of course, it’s not the assault weapon. The banned object? The original version of Red Riding Hood, deemed dangerous because of the bottle of wine in the basket Red is bringing to Grandma.
Lobbying advertisements rest on their ability to arrest and shock, and this one—part of a series by the group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America—used an absurd contrast to great effect. Consider that it was issued a mere four months after twenty-year-old Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Connecticut with an assault rifle, using it to murder twenty young children and six staff members. It can’t be an accident that this ad uses children who look about seven, the same age as Lanza’s victims.
The ad is powerful for other reasons too. The dishwater-grey palette of the background signals a world leached of color and innocence; the empty rocking chair implies a lack of adult presence and responsibility. The American flag on the left hangs limp and faded, as if the country it represents has been forsaken. And in a nod to business-as-usual race relations, the girl holding the gun is white and the other is black.
Contrast this with an NRA print ad from 1982, in which eight-year-old Bryan Hardin poses with his BB gun. Pictured outdoors, Bryan is bright-eyed and rosy, lit by golden sunlight that glances off his hair and skin. The saturated color palette and his dorky sweater and bangs recall a 1950s, “Leave It to Beaver” world where everything is wholesome and bright. Surely, only someone unpatriotic could deny this kid’s right to his gun! The syrupy warmth is in stark contrast to the cool dystopia of the Moms Demand Action ad.
Now, after last week’s incident in San Bernardino—the most deadly mass shooting since Sandy Hook—the gun control debate is heating up again. Yet with each new massacre, it seems as if the ideological split between gun control advocates and gun rights backers grows deeper and less bridgeable. One side wants the supply of guns curbed; for the other, the problem is that there aren’t enough guns. Now we even have a crop of entrepreneurs offering snazzy new products ranging from armored classroom whiteboards to bulletproof blankets and backpacks. Never mind Charlotte’s Web, kids—here’s what to do in a hostage shootout.
For the moment, as we deal with the aftermath of San Bernadino, the usual visual tropes are in place. Tear-stained faces, candlelight vigils, police tape: we’ve seen all these before, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook. We’ve watched as bills have been brought before Congress, only to be watered down and then, with crazed glee, shot to pieces by the pro-gun lobby.
So what’s going to move the dial? Clearly it will take creativity and persistence, because our outrage is no longer enough. We need a marketing genius to dream up the perfect image—which, thanks to the Internet, will go viral.
For inspiration, groups like Moms Demand Action might want to look to Europe, whose advertising is often both aesthetically sophisticated and emotionally devastating. And they might want to take off the gloves and get bloody, as these two public service ads from Europe do.
In this 2013 ad about child abuse, a Spanish agency caused ripples when it used lenticular printing technology so that only people under 4’ 5”—the height of an average ten-year-old—could see the boy’s bloody bruises and read the words, “If somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you.” Meanwhile, adults saw the same boy with an unblemished face and the message, “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.”
Even more bluntly, a new British PSA about drunk driving tells the story of Brendan, a husband who’s been exiled to the spare room and is sleeping on cushions. Flash back to the phone conversation where Brendan is refusing to pick his wife, Sandra, up from the train station because he’s on his second glass of wine. It’s raining, and Sandra is “proper cross”—but just as we’re thinking Brendan is being over-cautious, there’s a sound of screeching brakes and a cut to a shot of the couple being flung against the sofa cushions, bloody and dead. It happens in a split second, with the color changing from warm tones to a morgue-like blue in which splashes of red stand out. The shock value of this “accident,” and the sudden change of tone—from soap opera to horror film—is inspired.
It’s depressing to think that news photographs might not be enough anymore; that we might need the manipulative powers of advertising to shock us into action. But in this age of visual overload, something has to cut through the noise. A mass shooting now occurs in the United States more than once a day. Excuse the unsuitable metaphor, but it’s time to bring some bigger guns to this fight.
— Sarah Coleman
(screenshots: MDA; NRA; Foundation ANAR; Think Road Safety.)